A. Brad Schwartz’s new book on Orson Welles’ famous broadcast and its aftermath seeks to set the record straight.
Is it the medium or the message that proves most troubling? Imagine the confusion that would set in if, while channel surfing, you stumbled across the tail end of a report of an invasion? Out of context, you would have no point of reference for this information. Add this to months of troubling developments overseas and similar reports of ground troops invading Europe, and you’ve got the ideal combination for full-fledged panic.
This was the setting for Orson Welles’ infamous Mercury Theatre production of War of the Worlds. For years the very title was synonymous with public panic and chaos in the streets. Stories of terrified listeners committing suicide or taking up arms in response to the invaders and generally losing their shit have become the stuff of urban legend. But were people really that taken in by the prospect of invaders from Mars attacking the Eastern seaboard on the night before Halloween?
A. Brad Schwartz’s new book on the broadcast and its aftermath seeks to set the record straight. Through the use of listener letters sent to Welles, CBS Radio and the FCC, all now archived at the University of Michigan, Schwartz paints a slightly different picture from that depicted in the newspapers of the day. Just how widespread was the “panic”? Well, it turns out the broadcast range was not nearly large enough to encompass the whole country. And from those who heard the broadcast, if only just a portion of it, few found themselves taken in to the point beyond mild concern.
So from where did these stories of panic and chaos arise? Given the competition between print and radio, it’s not surprising that newspapers were primarily responsible for turing radio – personified by the young Orson Welles – into the bad guy. Rather than embark on the kind of in-depth, factual reporting upon which they could claim ultimate authority and trustworthiness, many papers sought to undermine the influence of radio, and inflated claims that the program itself was responsible for widespread panic.
Despite claims to the contrary, Welles’ performance was by no means the first to employ the fictional news broadcast format, on radio or otherwise. Hoaxes of a wide variety long existed in the media, both in print and broadcasting, and would have been quite familiar to the majority of the public. Given this, it’s little wonder that Welles and his Mercury Theatre compatriots thought nothing of delivering their performance as a fictionalized news report.
The key difference seems to be that of context. Due to the events in Europe at the time, listeners were already in a heightened state of panic that made them susceptible to mass hysteria and fear on an entirely new level. Indeed, as Schwartz points out, similar broadcasts before and after War of the Worlds had little to no impact. Lending credence to this notion are the troubling examples of similar broadcasts undertaken in several South American countries, at least one of which resulted in rioting, arson and more than a dozen deaths.
While these individual stories prove fascinating, Schwartz’s approach reads more like that of an overinflated long form magazine piece. Time and again, he restates significant portions of the text and wavers in his assessment of the situation. Although he at first he calls into question the scale of the panic, he then doubles back, arguing that it was a true panic with a wide-reaching cultural impact.
Basing his findings on the massive collection of letters sent in the wake of the broadcast, Schwartz can’t help but seem as lost as some of the listeners. This approach unfortunately undermines his initial thesis, and as he progresses chronologically, he seems to further confuse the facts with the fictionalized accounts of what transpired. Instead of clarifying the broadcast’s impact on American society, Broadcast Hysteria raises further questions. Regardless, it’s an entertaining read on a fascinating subject that has an unsettling parallel to the public perception of media integrity in our own time.