Editorial: We interrupt our program

Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News. At twenty minutes before eight, central time, Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars.

The spectroscope indicates the gas to be hydrogen and moving towards the earth with enormous velocity. Professor Pierson of the Observatory at Princeton confirms Farrell’s observation, and describes the phenomenon as (quote) like a jet of blue flame shot from a gun (unquote). We now return you to the music of Ramón Raquello, playing for you in the Meridian Room of the Park Plaza Hotel, situated in downtown New York.

On this day in 1938, Orson Welles causes a nationwide panic with his broadcast of “War of the Worlds”-a realistic radio dramatization of a Martian invasion of Earth.

Mass panic and hysteria swept the United States on the eve of Halloween in 1938, when an all-too-realistic radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds sent untold thousands of people into the streets or heading for the hills.

The radio show was so terrifying in its accounts of invading Martians wielding deadly heat-rays that it is remembered like no other radio program.

More accurately, it is misremembered like no other radio program. The panic and terror so routinely associated with The War of the Worlds dramatization did not come close to the nationwide dimension that night, 73 years ago.

Sure, some Americans were frightened or disturbed by what they heard. However, most listeners, overwhelmingly, were not. They recognized it for what it was – a clever and entertaining radio play.

Newspaper headlines across America told of the terror that Welles’ show supposedly created. For newspapers, the so-called “panic broadcast” brought newspapers an exceptional opportunity to censure radio, a still-new medium that was becoming a serious competitor in providing news and advertising.

“Radio is new but it has adult responsibilities,” chided the New York Times. “It has not mastered itself or the material it uses.”

At Historic City News, we see several similarities to the way dying newspapers chide Internet news — simply because they are not well suited to embrace the power of today’s technology.

“Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact,” declared the New York Times. “Radio Fake Scares Nation,” cried the Chicago Herald and Examiner. “US Terrorized by Radio’s ‘Men from Mars,'” said the San Francisco Chronicle.

Yet we know from several sources that the reports of thousands of panic-stricken Americans were wildly exaggerated. Close reading of contemporaneous newspaper reports also reveals the fright that night was highly exaggerated.

Newspapers presented sweeping claims about thousands or even millions of panic-stricken Americans, but offered little supporting documentation. Most newspapers printed dispatches sent by wire services such as the Associated Press, which extrapolated widespread fear from small numbers of scattered, anecdotal accounts.

Newspapers, moreover, reported no deaths or serious injuries related to The War of the Worlds broadcast — had panic and hysteria seized America that night, the mayhem surely would have caused many deaths and injuries.

Despite its inaccurate basis, the myth of “mass panic” remains attached to The War of the Worlds radio program. After all, you heard it on the news, right?

Photo credits: © 2011 Historic City News archive photograph

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