We know now that in the early years of the twentieth century this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own.
So began one of the most famous radio broadcasts of all time: the October 30, 1938 adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. Whenever Halloween rolls around, I always get in the mood to listen to the so-called “Panic Broadcast”. It’s one of my favouite radio shows. Not only is it a great program by itself, but I’m also fascinated by the story around it. Not the story that’s usually told, however, but the far more interesting truth behind what we all think we know about the “Panic Broadcast.”
Most people know the broad strokes of the popular story. On the evening before Halloween, the Mercury Theater on the Air starring Orson Welles performed a radio version of the popular science fiction story. What set the War of the Worlds broadcast apart from other shows the Mercury Theatre produced was its script, written by Howard Koch with input from Welles. Koch and Welles decided to use what was at the time an uncommon trick for creating realism: they framed the audio play as if it were itself a totally different radio broadcast experiencing a series of journalistic interruptions to the normal nightly entertainment.
What happened next is widely told today in books, in television documentaries, and online: many people tuned in after the show began and, lacking the context of the intro, assumed they actually were listening to news reports about New Jersey being invaded by Martians. This triggered a night of chaos as listeners panicked about the arrival of the interplanetary menace. People fled their homes; people flocked to churches; people called the police; people grabbed their guns; people contemplated suicide; all because of a fake news broadcast about Martian invaders.
The event created a social and political firestorm that threatened the radio industry’s very existence. Within a few days, newspapers were reporting that “literally MILLIONS OF PEOPLE understood the broadcast to be REAL”. A flurry of lawsuits was filed against CBS. Congressional hearings were declared, and regulations were imposed forbidding stations from airing fake news broadcasts. The Panic Broadcast has since become a morality tale for broadcasting, a warning against the misuse of the great power that media wields over the public.
At least, that’s the way it’s told. But how could reasonable people accept a fantastic event like Martian invaders as real? Before we answer that question, we need to ask a different question, one often asked here on Skeptoid: did it really happen the way it’s told?
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