Fake News and False Memories

The War of the Worlds and the phony panic


Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles's War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News, by A. Brad Schwartz, Hill and Wang, 416 pages, $35.

The War of the Worlds has become a historical Rorschach test. Some people are convinced the legendary radio drama drove panicked hordes into America's streets. Others treat that story more skeptically, arguing that the terror induced by Orson Welles' masterpiece has been significantly overblown. As the years recede, the debate over the events of Sunday, October 30, 1938, often appears unresolvable. In classrooms, online, in print, and in documentaries, everyone seems to use the panic story to validate their preconceptions about media power and mass audiences. The existing historical evidence apparently allows all of us to find the panic, or calm, we believe happened that night.

Into this debate steps filmmaker A. Brad Schwartz, whose Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles's War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News commemorates the centenary of Welles' birth. Schwartz is a talented writer, and Broadcast Hysteria does an effective job of reminding readers that radio's intimate power in the 1930s is almost unimaginable in today's multiplatform media environment. The book revisits the night when Welles and his talented crew supposedly shook America with fright. It offers a condensed Welles biography, details the brilliance of Welles' collaborators, and delivers an interesting contextual discussion of American commercial radio and its regulatory framework in the 1930s. Schwartz further includes a comprehensive exposition of how the panic story first emerged, and then became sustained, over the decades since that fateful night.

Much of this tale has already been told. Others have extensively explored the technical artistry of the Mercury Theatre crew and the tragic story of how The War of the Worlds paradoxically proved both the greatest blessing and worst curse of Welles' life. But Schwartz interweaves strong chapters covering the shoddy journalism that framed the event and the role of 1940's The Invasion from Mars, a famous but flawed social science text, in perpetuating the panic legend. Broadcast Hysteria concludes by reminding us that the issues raised by The War of the Worlds—including mass media power, how it affects us, how it is regulated, and the relationship between dramatic and journalistic techniques—remain largely unresolved today.

The book reflects a remarkable research effort. Schwartz located, read, and categorized the almost 2,000 surviving letters concerning the broadcast written to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), CBS, Orson Welles, and producer Richard Wilson. Many of the letters resided in the Richard Wilson–Orson Welles Papers housed within the University of Michigan's Special Collections Library, where they remained largely ignored until Schwartz began Broadcast Hysteria as a senior thesis. The result is the most robust account yet of audience reaction both to the broadcast and to the ensuing newspaper reports of panic.

Schwartz discovered that remarkably few people reported that they personally experienced and acted on panic. How few? Out of 1,974 letters, a total of six people wrote of actually fleeing their homes in terror "because of the broadcast." Yes, six. But, Schwartz adds helpfully, "at least another thirteen were ready to do so" as well.

"Those panicked scenes of flight and near flight, which turned War of the Worlds into the stuff of American legend, did happen, but they were very, very rare," Schwartz explains. "The vast majority of Americans, even those living in New Jersey, saw no panic and had no idea anything unusual was going on." The majority of letter writers wrote to the broadcasters and the government to spout off about the social and political dangers of gullible, uneducated, and naive audiences. Some called for more protection through regulation and legislation, while others warned the government not to exploit a few overly emotional morons to impose censorship.

Ultimately, far more letters of praise and support than condemnation arrived in the CBS and FCC offices. And Schwartz further notes that the total number of letters received regarding the broadcast were "not especially high." For comparison, he offers the 50,000 letters generated by a single scary episode of Lights Out.

So how did this minor blip on the broadcasting schedule become so infamous that even Adolf Hitler would use it to mock the United States? "If the press had not fanned the flames of controversy," Schwartz writes, "the whole incident could easily have been forgotten." He chronicles the enormity of the newspapers' unprofessional, unethical, and erroneous reporting. Newspaper reports were not simply inaccurate; they were sensationalized and—even by the standards of the 1930s—misogynistic and condescending.

Following up on these press reports, a young and ambitious Princeton scholar named Hadley Cantril then exploited the opportunity to burnish his growing reputation in the fields of social psychology and media effects. Just days after the broadcast, Cantril was already pontificating to undergraduates about the larger meanings to be found in the event. Over the next several months, in collaboration (and often conflict) with sociologists Paul Lazarsfeld, Hazel Gaudet, and others, Cantril assembled a research project published in 1940 as The Invasion from Mars.

It quickly became a landmark of social science analysis, assigned in university classrooms across the country with its findings integrated into textbooks. It was also reviewed in Time and sold surprisingly well for an academic work. Yet as Schwartz shows, everything about the project—from its original conception to its research protocols and survey instruments to its conclusions—is questionable.

The subtitle of Schwartz's book invokes "the art of fake news," a theme that's particularly relevant today. Revisiting The March of Time, a radio series of the 1930s and '40s, Schwartz briefly examines the fluid border between drama and journalism in the earliest years of these two different broadcast genres. The March of Time fused "news, entertainment, and advertising," Schwartz writes, noting that it set "the stage for other programs, less interested in accuracy or fair play, that were to follow." Time's Henry Luce memorably called his sponsored radio broadcast "fakery in allegiance to the truth." The March of Time employed actors to impersonate newsworthy figures, and it favored theatrics over sober reportage. Schwartz directly connects The March of Time to War of the Worlds by closely examining Orson Welles' early appearances on Luce's program. "Welles loved doing The March of Time," he writes, noting Welles' delight "at the license it gave him to impersonate everyone from Fiorello La Guardia to Sigmund Freud."

But Schwartz never fully engages the larger implications. Fake news did not originate with broadcasting. Mudslinging and rumor-mongering pervaded the press in the early republic. In the 1830s—the dawn of the mass media age—the New York Sun famously perpetrated the "Great Moon Hoax" by reporting the alleged discovery of life on the moon. As media platforms have proliferated, American journalism has only grown more infected with frauds and fabulists publishing and broadcasting "fakery in allegiance to the truth." Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, Brian Williams, and others have demonstrated remarkable proficiency in producing or relaying fake news.

Although Schwartz notes the Great Moon Hoax, he never places Welles and his collaborators' brilliant radio artistry in this larger historical context. The Mercury Theatre's ability to so perfectly capture the rhythm, pacing, and sounds of the emerging radio news flash style proved hugely influential, but the troupe was actually building on a long tradition of exploiting journalistic formats for sensational effect.

All the same, Schwartz's research is impressive and his findings are important. In 2013, PBS commemorated the 75th anniversary of Welles' broadcast with an American Experience documentary relying heavily on Cantril's study. That program emphasized the panic myth with only a single, brief nod to the growing body of scholarship challenging the legend. Schwartz co-authored the script for the documentary, which I (along with my colleague Jefferson Pooley) excoriated in a review for Slate. Thus my surprise when late last year the publisher Hill & Wang mailed me a galley of Broadcast Hysteria to solicit my opinion of Schwartz's research. I read with trepidation at first, then delight, and finally-as a radio scholar-gratitude. Broadcast Hysteria is one case where I can state, unreservedly, that the book is better than the movie.