I went to a presentation celebrating the 80th anniversary of Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds”. The reason this particular broadcast has lived on in history and is still remembered and talked about today is really quite interesting.

Orson Welles broadcasting “The War of the Worlds”

The radio play starts with a typical program playing music from a live band. This fictional program is then interrupted by a realistic sounding “newscaster” reporting an increasingly destructive invasion by Martians. The Martians wipe out New Jersey and proceed to annihilate Manhattan. They are reported to be landing all over the east coast of the United States. The U.S. army is reported to be vanquished and the audience is told that we have no defenses left.

Rehearsal of War of the Worlds

Newspapers the next day, including the New York Times, headlined a nationwide panic that made this incident the most notorious event in broadcast history. The unprecedented mass hysteria was talked about in newspapers, books, articles and radio and TV shows for the past 80 years.

The day after the broadcast

There were reports of thousands of panicked calls to police and radio stations across the country. There were stories of traffic accidents, near riots and hordes of panicked people in the streets and on the roads, fleeing the Martian invasion. There were even reports of suicides and deaths due to the hysteria caused by the broadcast. It was claimed that the stories continued in the newspapers for two weeks, with over 12,500 articles about the panic.

The day after the broadcast

Today, however, this version of history has now been debunked and fallen out of favor. The current belief is that whatever panic occurred, it was small and not widespread. Most listeners understood this was a dramatization. While some may have been scared by the story, few panicked. Evidence shows that at the time of the event, newspaper reports of the story actually stopped after a day or two, not weeks. The story was not the long-lasting, national headline grabber we believed it to be.

In addition, far fewer people heard the original broadcast than most people believed. This fact makes the magnitude of the reported panic much more implausible. A rating service the night of the broadcast reported only 2% of listeners were even tuned in to The “War of the Worlds.” This was true, in part because Welles was scheduled opposite one of the most popular shows on the air – Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.

In addition, several important CBS affiliates, including in Boston, didn’t even air Welles’ show. Instead, they aired local commercial programming, which further reduced Welles’ national audience.

History does show, however, that the story grew in magnitude and in detail as time went on. So the 1940 claim that one million people heard the broadcast is grossly exaggerated.

Just as the size of Welles’ audience has been inflated, so have the reports of mass hysteria. There is no documentation of any deaths or even hospital visits, as claimed, due to the shock of the broadcast. In reality, there were almost no contemporaneous news accounts of mobs in the streets or highways jammed with fleeing people. In fact, people later reported walking through the streets of major cities at the time of the broadcast and finding them as empty as usual at that time of night.

There is another piece of evidence used to counter the mass panic scenario. If the terror and chaos had been as bad and as widespread as reported, CBS and Welles would have been severely reprimanded or even punished. But no sanctions were levied and no official rulings or regulations were promulgated by the FCC.

Welles facing the press the day after the broadcast

So why was the mass panic story started and why did it survive for so long?

One credible theory is that newspapers were to blame for the origins of the story. Radio was still a relatively new medium in 1938 – only 18 years old. But already radio was taking advertising dollars and audiences away from the newspaper industry. So the newspapers seized upon this opportunity to trash the radio as an unreliable source of news. A newspaper trade journal at the time wrote: “The nation as a whole continues to face the danger of incomplete, misunderstood news over a medium which had yet to prove …that it is competent to perform the news job.”

You can’t trust the radio! Fake news!

People are now debating why this myth has persisted for so long. One answer is a man named Hadley Cantril. He wrote a scholarly book in 1940 that gave academic credence to the panic. He used numbers and statistics that made his story seem plausible, but which have subsequently come into question.

He had no hard facts to back up any of his assertions. And he is the only legitimate academic source that claims there was a sizeable panic. Yet his writing has kept this version of the story in textbooks, as it still is today.

There is a more philosophical explanation of the persistence of the mass hysteria myth. In 2000, Northwestern’s Jeffrey Sconce wrote an article called, “Haunted Media”. In it, he suggests that the “War of the Worlds” myth captures our unease with mass media and the internet’s power over us. We all fear, on some level, the media and the internet “…invading and colonizing our consciousness.” The myth is “…a cautionary tale about the power of the media.”

Jeffrey Sconce

Radio opened up a new means of mass communication and shared experiences. Now the internet is doing the same thing. Sconce states that “…today the internet provides us with both the promise of a dynamic communicative future and dystopian fears of a new form of mind control; lost privacy; and attacks from scary, mysterious forces.”

This is particularly true with today’s epidemic of fake news, foreign intervention, and manipulation of the internet and domestic political dirty tricks. We deal with political misinformation being spread to millions of people every day. A national panic may not have occurred because of a radio broadcast in 1938, but it is more likely to occur today because of the abuse of the internet.

Categories: Ellin Curley, journalism, Media, newspapers, Radio, reporting, truth

Tags: , , , , , , ,

26 replies

  1. Can you imagine listening to the radio when that happened?


  2. I remember hearing stories about “War of the World” and panic running riot but I always wondered if it was hype. Delighted you cleared that up (not that I couldn’t have done my own research if motivated enough) but I haven’t. Very enlightening. And truer words regarding today and what’s happening. Especially when people don’t question the source and do a little digging to get to the truth of the situation. Mud slinging in politics has taken a whole different road.


  3. In the entertainment world, any press was good press in those days. All the hullabaloo about the show was great publicity for Welles. We can’t rule out that source.


  4. Wow, Ellin, such an interesting blog! I’ve always believed the stories that surrounded the Orson Welles broadcast. Unfortunately, in today’s fraught political environment, we are all aware of how facts get distorted.


    • This debunking of the national panic myth has been around for at least 20 years. Even Snopes says that the original stories of the mass hysteria were false. Maybe someone should have checked before doing a 2 hour presentation based on the false information from decadaes ago.


  5. Very interesting read. I had heard all about this from my dad, who would be about 8 at that time. Today we are facing the propagation of fake/ exaggerated news in a similar manner from the social media.


    • The big difference between then and now is that this particular bit of “fakery” was not designed to undermine an election or arouse hatred. It was pure Hollywood puffery, but it wasn’t malicious. Now, it’s full of hate and that IS different.

      Liked by 1 person

    • There was a lot of ‘fake news’ in the early part of the 20th century. But it is more prevalent and more powerful today. The internet can feed false information to anyone about their pet hates, specifically targeted to them and other like minded people. This is more pernicious than newspaper stories about the ‘yellow menace’.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. A most interest article and point, Ellin. I agree that far to much “fake news” is available to people because of the internet. It is a wonderful and powerful tool but it has its darker side just like everything else in life. It is up to the user to be responsible and reasonable in their usage but that doesn’t always happen.


    • It’s really sad how the internet has been hijacked by hate groups and right wing political groups. They spread total lies and conspiracy theories and their audience just buys it! Since the only things they read are on these horrible sites, they only see confirmation of these crazy stories! Very sad.


  7. Well, that is very interesting and goes to show that fake news is nothing new. I suppose that once a film was made about the incident it reinforced the idea that it had been a bigger deal than it was and so it became accepted as fact. I was thinking of this broadcast just the other day after listening to your Voicescapes pieces.


    • The fake news in this case lasted for decades. I’m not sure why the debunking of the myth hasn’t received more press. It’s really a big deal. I just took part in a full, two hour show about the original story of the nationwide panic.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. In Israel, the “print anything” got so bad, the government warned the newspapers that if they didn’t stop, they would require anyone who wrote in a newspaper to be licensed. Everyone calmed down. There, the problem was too many papers. Heavy competition and a pretty small market. I have NO idea what it’s like now. For all I know, it’s just like here and everyone is on the phone all day. But then, there were too many paper and too few readers.


    • Israel sounds like a mess in so many ways!


      • And yet, the laws are surprisingly sane and civil. The only reason they threatened the paper was that they were making up stories just to boost circulation. No death penalty. The laws are the same for everyone, though how they are applied may be something else. And elections are almost as wild and woolly as ours.

        And the other thing is? When the country is in any kind of peril — financial or war — everyone comes together. At least until they get things back on track, both parties will unite and work for the good of all. Afterward, they break up and start fighting again, but they know peril. And there are no homeless people, no one goes hungry, no one lacks medical care. Overall? Not so bad.


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