Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air’s broadcast of “War of the Worlds” had its 75th anniversary last month. Slate.com, in its usual contrarian manner, has thrown cold water on the widely-accepted idea that a broad segment of Americans heard the newscast-style program, thought a real alien invasion was in progress, and panicked.
Not so, claim authors Jefferson Pooley and Michael Socolow. “The supposed panic was so tiny as to be practically immeasurable on the night of the broadcast,” they write. “Despite repeated assertions to the contrary in the PBS and NPR programs, almost nobody was fooled by Welles’ broadcast.”
Obviously there’s been pushback on this idea; it’s been received wisdom for generations that Welles’s broadcast was a huge fiasco, and stories have been passed down from parent to child about neighbors or relatives who fled their homes, contemplated suicide, or reported in to the National Guard during that chaotic hour on the night of October 30, 1938. It’s as ingrained in our collective psyche as the belief that European immigrants were forced to change their names when they entered the country at Ellis Island a hundred years ago. (No one’s name was changed.)
Pooley and Socolow make a strong case, although some of their arguments make me want to investigate further. They claim the “panic” narrative was hyped by newspapers as anti-radio propaganda, because the newspapers felt threatened by the ascendancy of the other medium as a news source. But the war between the two media was pretty much over by 1938. I suspect the story got so much traction in newspapers simply because it was a great story, no matter how few people were actually affected by it, and radio reportage was muted because broadcasters were embarrassed by it.
The Slate authors were specifically debunking a PBS documentary and an episode of the radio show and podcast Radiolab about Welles’s broadcast. That’s all well and good, but I wonder if there’s a subtext to their story underlying the fact that the panic didn’t happen to the degree most people think it did: that it couldn’t have happened, because even back then, in the early days of broadcasting, audiences were already too sophisticated to fall for that sort of prank.
But the Radiolab story, at least (I haven’t seen the PBS documentary) goes beyond the Mercury Theatre’s own broadcast. In November 12, 1944 the script was translated, localized, and broadcast in Santiago, Chile. Allegedly people did panic and flee their homes this time, and a militia was alerted, and one man, an electrician named Jose Villarroel, is meant to have died of a heart attack due to the shock.
This is my main source for that story. Radiolab cites it too. It’s also mentioned in this book. I can’t find many other cites, and none with more than a vague historiography. Maybe I’d find more if I could read Spanish.
On February 12, 1949, the panic happened for a third time, now in Quito, Ecuador. According to some of the same sources as in the other instances, but also this detailed one, there was some panic during the broadcast, followed by rioting and arson of the radio station by people embarrassed they’d been fooled. Six people died.
Maybe these South American incidents have been overblown, just as Pooley and Socolow claim the original was. I kinda think the size of the supposed panics really isn’t the point. The writers haven’t shown the panic didn’t happen in 1938; only that it was smaller than we’ve always believed. Whether those taken in numbered a million or a hundred, the verité presentation “got” them, and it’s newsworthy that they were got. The power of the medium, or at least of that kind of straightfaced storytelling, was proved either way.
It’s like the newscast format is the accepted way of telling a “true” story, so we have a powerful incentive to believe anything brought to us in that manner. Orson Welles taught us that in 1938. It was a very important lesson, and it’s why subsequent works such as Special Bulletin have been extra-careful to label themselves as fiction. Nobody wants the lawsuit from the people who are fooled, and some people will definitely be fooled.