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The original fake news story

Opinion, 29 August 2017
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Malcolm White discovers the truth about a legend of broadcasting history, and finds that the only hysteria caused by the 1938 broadcast of ‘The War of the Worlds’ was the one cooked about by a competing medium - newspapers.

Almost eighty years ago, at 8.30pm on 30 October 1938, 'The Mercury Theatre on the Air' radio series broadcast a one-off adaptation of H.G. Wells' classic 1897 novel The War of the Worlds, starring Orson Welles, to an unsuspecting Depression-era America. What followed, as I'm sure you know, was mass hysteria and panic as millions mistook this dramatic production of a Martian invasion of New Jersey for real news, and thousands of families started fleeing with their furniture heaped up on their cars, jamming expressways in their desperation to flee from the murderous Martians.

Except it didn't. In fact, apart from the fact of the broadcast taking place, almost everything I thought I knew about what happened turns out to be wrong. I stand corrected thanks to a fascinating recent book called Broadcast Hysteria, by A. Brad Schwartz. The author convincingly demonstrates that the panicked scenes of flight that have become part of legend and American media history were almost certainly very, very rare indeed.

As well as telling a riveting story, Schwartz has, for the first time, painstakingly examined the one thousand nine hundred and seventy-four letters written by members of the public, which were sent in shortly after the broadcast, to the Mercury Theatre and the Federal Communications Commission. Based on this analysis, he reveals that almost 75% of the letters were from those who were completely untouched by fright or panic (Schwartz defines 'panicked people' as those people who actually took some action in response to the broadcast, such as trying to flee their homes). Almost as surprising, it turns out that a lot of letters were written in support, not in condemnation, of Orson Welles despite the press branding him 'Public Frightener No. 1'.

When Schwartz also reveals that the Mercury Theatre broadcast reached only 3.6% of the radio audience nationwide, whereas a whopping 34.7% of the listening public tuned in to a competing show at the same time on another station, it is clear that it would have been extremely difficult – perhaps impossible in a pre-internet, pre-social media world – for this infamous radio drama to have had the kind of huge audience impact that it has subsequently been credited with.

I've discussed fake news before in this column (Admap, June 2017), but viewing it through the lens of this historic broadcast, and understanding and recognising the circumstances in which this story took root in 1930s America and beyond can help us develop a sort of early warning system of the circumstances to watch out for, and try to contain, today.

The first of these is conflict between media producers. This creates an unhealthy climate in which ratcheting up the sensationalism and hyperbole of 'news' reporting becomes an acceptable competitive strategy. Today, we have conflict between old media and new media and between mainstream news and the 'alt-right'. In 1938, the press were fighting a bitter rearguard action against radio which, back then, was the upstart media. In fact, according to one school of thought, a reason why the alleged effects of The War of the Worlds broadcast entered into folklore was because there was a competitive incentive for the press to keep the story running as long as possible to denounce radio as a damaging force.

Second, when catastrophic events collide with economic and social depression, conditions are primed for a frightening fake news story to explode among at least some jumpy people. Thirties America was in the grip of a depression, and earlier in 1938 it had looked like world war was about to break out. New Jersey itself (the ground zero of the fictional Martian attack) had experienced more than its fair share of real-life crises in the years preceding, including the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, the Hindenburg airship disaster and, just a few months before the broadcast, the most destructive hurricane in a generation.

Of course, in our internet age, stories, news, and rumours of the kind that The War of The Worlds created can reach millions of people almost instantly. Whereas in 1938 the very few people who heard the broadcast had to pick up the phone and go through operators to place a call, or run next door, to spread news of the Martian invasion, today all that can be done with a simple click.

I don't want to play the role of 'Public Frightener No. 2', but the similarities between the circumstances that prevailed then and those that do now are so striking that all of us – producers, intermediaries, agents and consumers – would do well to tread very carefully indeed.

About the author

Malcolm White is Co-founder of Krow Communications. Prior to this, he was executive planning director at Partners BDDH and Euro RSCG. He is the winner of an IPA Effectiveness Award.

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