Miseducation: Media War of the Worlds

Orson Welles

Orson Welles, 1938

‘Miseducation’ is a series intended to correct falsities that are often mistaken for common knowledge. Tips provided are discouraged from being raised to maliciously correct teachers. Furthermore, OPT does not condone acts of know-it-allism.

Halloween is a time to keep aware that not everything is what it seems. With so many ghoulish tricksters trying to surprise and frighten you, it is important to keep your wits about you. This is advice that America could have used on the eve of Halloween 1938, when radio listeners tuned into Orson Welles’ production of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. The science-fiction thriller was so expressively captured, the radio audience was reportedly convinced that aliens had breached our atmosphere and had begun a full-scale invasion. While it is easy enough to believe gullibility is a frequent trait, the more plausible explanation is that legends of interesting stories can become exaggerated over time, or in some cases begin as exaggerated.

Orson Welles’ production was aired on the anthology series The Mercury Theater on the Air on October 30, 1938. Broadcasted by CBS in its radio heyday, auteur-to-be Welles produced it as a series of realistic news reports that detailed the space invasion. As a responsible network, a disclaimer assuring the falsity of the news reports preceded the program. However, because The Mercury Theater aired parallel to a more popular show on another network, listeners would change stations during commercials, preventing the hearing of the initial disclaimer. To Welles’ credit, his program was timed for the action to coincide with the more popular program’s commercial breaks, thus heightening his chances at audience captivation. Meanwhile, “The War of the Worlds” was broadcast with no commercials, which only added to the perceived validity of the news reports.

In historical context, it is understandable to mistake the burgeoning medium of radio for a credible news resource, as previous generations were not accustomed to new-wave entertainment and viral media. In what could be considered the first ever viral sensation, panic ensued, but mostly in newsrooms. As radio had risen to prominence in the public’s heart, the flow of advertising revenue shifted from newspapers to broadcast stations. In a desperate bid to regain readership and sponsorship, newspapers saw an opportunity to discredit radio by spinning the extent of panic out of proportion. Print journalists criticized Welles’ entertainment tactics as irresponsible and called for legal action. Audiences should have learned from the broadcast that just because something masquerades as news does not make it so.

Contemporary sociologists have established the panic as exaggerated through several ways. For safe measure, CBS added a disclaimer in program breaks at 40 and 55 minutes for anyone too enthralled for skepticism. The leading ratings service calculated that only 2% of the audience was tuned in to “The War of the Worlds.” Some CBS affiliate stations opted to air local programming instead of The Mercury Theater, so many areas such as Boston would not have had access to Welles’ adaptation. While calls to local authorities and newspapers increased during the broadcast, this is generally viewed now as a lack of panic in a society of pre-war anxiety. Some media historians would go as far to say that practically nobody was tricked.

Staying rational when things become stressful is crucial. Whether you’re trying to keep sharp in a haunted house, watching something scary on television, or taking a terrifying test, people often want to trick you. Ulterior motives arise when the incentives are great, such as candy or candy advertising dollars. Orson Welles’ “The War of The Worlds” was a prime example of the news media sensationalizing story for commercial reasons.

The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic – Jefferson Pooley and Michael J. Socolow – Slate

War of the Worlds – American Experience – Public Broadcasting Service

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