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Remembering the radio “War of the Worlds”

Seventy years ago this week Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre on the Air performed a radio broadcast version of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds which immediately became a legendarily contested example of the power of mass mediated communication.  The broadcast, enlivened with simulated but realistic-sounding journalistic reporting, told the story of a Martian invasion that was presented as actually underway in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey.  An absence of commercial interruptions helped convince some listeners that the drama was in fact a nonfictional account, and the ensuing reports of panic – the New York Times front page headline read “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact” – were judged by one scholar to have affected as many as 1.7 million listeners (the portion of the six million estimated to have heard the broadcast) who “believed it to be true,” of whom 1.2 million were said to be “genuinely frightened.”

The War of the Worlds radio broadcast reached far fewer people than the number who read about it in the more than 12,000 newspaper accounts published afterward.  Some argue that the disproportionate attention was the result of poor reporting practices and an implicit arrogance among newspaper reporters about the delusional power of the newer broadcast media; the net effect of the self-interested accounts was thus a widespread exaggerated sense of the actual panic.  Others have noted that while the contemporary accounts do establish that many listeners were genuinely frightened, far fewer actually acted on their fear in ways confirming a sense that an invasion was actually underway.

A sense lingers to this day that the radio listeners panicked by the broadcast were rubes or hopelessly naive (for Hitler the incident confirmed American “decadence”).  A recent reenactment staged as a theatrical production in Washington, DC, planted panicky rubes in the audience who would leap to their feet and act frightened.  But this sense is not quite fair given the care given to trick the listening audience.  Welles is alleged to have timed the script so that listeners of the much more popular NBC competitor (the Chase & Sanborn show) on at the time would turn the dial to CBS timed to miss the opening disclaimers.  And the tale was specifically manipulated to take advantage of the broadcast norms of the time, during which news interruptions were taken seriously and had not been parodied in this way.  And of course many of those panicked were less spooked by having heard the radio show and judged it real than having been told about it through the rumor mill.  And elsewhere random coincidences contributed to misperception; in Concrete, Washington the local power went out right at the moment of highest drama, and so listeners seemed to have found confirmation of the radio drama as their lights flickered out.  The sense of embarrassment aroused in the aftermath of the national broadcast and its unmasking as pure fiction is sometimes said to have led Americans to first downplay news reports coming out of Pearl Harbor.

The irony, of course, is that media spoofs continue to sometimes trigger panic to this day, making it hard to sustain the narrative that we get it in ways our parents did not.  Eleven years after the original broadcast, a Spanish language version of WOTW was produced on Ecuadorean radio that reportedly set off widespread panic.  When the broadcast’s fictional nature was revealed, angry crowds actually mobbed Radio Quito and six people died in the volatile aftermath.  In the early 1970’s a Buffalo (NY) radio station updated the script and induced some sense of panic when they described scenes of a Martian invasion of Niagara Falls.  But apart from the WOTW episodes, one might point to the hoaxes perpetrated by broadcasts in Estonia (1991; which set in motion a brief currency crisis), Bulgaria (1991; which triggered panic about nuclear safety), Belgium (2006; a fake-news announcement that Flanders was seceding provoked alarm), or Boston (2007; a weird marketing campaign triggered a mammoth security and bomb alert crackdown).

Given the sporadic but continuing episodes of the apparent dread induced by Orson Welles and his imitators, a subsequent weird mix of analysis and disclaimer in the scholarship centered on media influence has resulted.  Some conspiracy theorists have kept alive the rumor that the WOTW broadcast was actually a secret project of the Rockefeller Foundation, a live action social science experiment.  The more serious accounts still tend either to anchor a Whig narrative of media history (people used to be gullible, and incidents like the Wells/Welles broadcast gave rise to accounts of the media’s totalizing power that we now understand to be naive) or to connect to warnings about how media influence is taught today.  With respect to the latter, David Martinson (a Florida International University professor) has written:

Many communication scholars trace a decline in support for the magic bullet theory – interestingly and paradoxically to a radio broadcast that many “lay persons” continue to cite as “definitive” evidence to support their belief in an omnipotently powerful mass media.  That broadcast was Orson Welles’ adaptation of H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds which was broadcast on Halloween eve in 1938…  But – and this became critically important as researchers later examined the impact of the Welles’ broadcast – everyone did not panic.  If the magic bullet theory were valid, there should have been something approaching almost full-scale hysteria.  Instead, studies showed “that ‘critical ability’ was the most significant variable related to the response people made to the broadcast.”

Martinson’s point is reasonable, but the difficulty, it seems to me, relates to ongoing and conflicting tendencies in the scholarship to disavow strong media effects even as reports of extreme consequence surface.  The point is not that one should or can generalize from scattered reports of extreme panic to make indefensible claims about the sustained influence of the media forming the wallpaper backdrop of contemporary culture, but rather that in disclaiming strong overall media effects one should not disavow their possibility altogether.  Beyond the continuing incidence of extreme reaction, which obviously arise under very peculiar circumstances, media scholars still struggle to explain the durability of media influence both at the level of the specific program and as it shapes a culture’s fantasies.  Some notion of the latter was conveyed by Jeffrey Sconce’s (2000) Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television (Duke UP), which calls attention to the subtle ways in which mass mediation reinforces cultural fantasies about the human capacity to connect with the spirit world and other domains of existence.

The genuine and I think undeniable psychic unease that new forms of mass mediation continue to provoke are not simply a result of a lurking but sometimes absent sense of spiritual fulfillment and a related longing to truly connect with forces external to oneself.  Rather, the wider but too often demeaned significance of mass media influence also connects to the large scale accomplishments of massive industrialization and organization that underwrite the contemporary networked society (electrical grids, systems of food distribution, bureaucratized multinational corporate culture), systems of connection and alienation that because of their size also evoke paranoia and incomprehension and, sometimes, panic.  The technologies of mass media production (e.g., digital special effects) allow artists to exaggerate and evoke extreme responses.  As Ray Bradbury, writing an introduction to a recent collection of WOTW materials, put it,

Wells and Welles prepared us for the delusionist madness of the past fifty years.  In fact, the entire history of the United States in the last half of the twentieth century is exemplified beautifully in Well’s work.  Starting with the so-called arrival of flying saucers in the 1950s, we’ve had a continuation of our mild panic at being invaded by creatures from some other part of the universe….  So we are all closet paranoids preached to by a paranoid…  The War of the Worlds is a nightmare vision of humanity’s conquest – one that inspired paranoia in all its forms throughout the twentieth century… Truth be told, ever since the novel and the broadcast, we are still in the throes of believing that we’ve been invaded by creatures from somewhere else.

In the context of the now-popular efforts to visually and emotionally render the perils of global warming, some commentators have taken to referring to climate porn – those money shots in which we all seem to revel in the cinematic moment when the Statue of Liberty is wiped out by a tidal wave and the oxygen sucked instantaneously out of flash-frozen lungs.  An American paleoclimatologist (William Hyde), reviewing The Day After Tomorrow (the 2004 blockbuster I’m referring to) noted how “this movie is to climate science as Frankenstein is to heart transplant surgery.”

The persistence and pervasiveness of mass mediated evocations of deep unease, enacted in everything from science fiction to negative political commercials (e.g., Elizabeth Dole’s truly revolting new ad that seriously claims, over sinister music, that her Senate opponent Kay Hagan is secretly part of an atheistic cabal) to Snakes on a Plane depictions that only minimally metaphorize Terrorists on a Plane to endlessly emailed conspiracy messages about Barack Obama’s “true” religious commitments have to be taken seriously even while one also insists on the limits of media influence.  In an age of too readily trumped up dread it seems to me overly simple to conclude, with Michael Socolow, that accounts of media influence can be deeply discounted simply by asking the questions Would you have fallen for Welles’ broadcast?  If not, why do you assume so many other people did?  

To the contrary, it seems to me that people fall for the hyped and distorted accounts of mega-risk (yes, me included) all the time.  Indeed, the words screamed in Indianapolis upon hearing War of the Worlds seventy years ago might as easily have been uttered around the nation seven years ago on another crisp autumn day:  “New York is destroyed.  It’s the end of the world. We might as well go home to die.  I’ve just heard it on the radio.”

SOURCES:  Michael Socolow, “The hyped panic over ‘War of the Worlds,’” Chronicle of Higher Education, 24 October 2008, pgs. B16-B17; The War of the Worlds:  Mars’ Invasion of Earth, Inciting Panic and Inspiring Terror from H.G. Wells to Orson Wells and Beyond (Naperville, Ill., Sourcebooks MediaFusion, 2005); David Martinson, “Teachers must not pass along popular ‘myths’ regarding the supposed omnipotence of the mass media,” High School Journal, October/November 2006, pgs. 16-21; Matthew Warren, “Drama, not doomsday,” The Australian, 28 August 2008, pg. 10; “The archive – November 1, 1938 – ‘US panic at Martian attack: Wireless drama causes uproar,” The London Guardian, 8 November 2007; Jason Zinoman, “Just close your eyes and pretend you’re scared,” New York Times, 17 October 2007, pg. 3; Michael Powell, “Marketing gimmick does bad in Boston: Light devices cause bomb scare,” Washington Post, 1 February 2007, p. A3; “TV prank leaves country divided,” New Zealand Herald, 4 January 2007.


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