The "War of the Worlds" Myth

Seventy-five years ago today, the CBS radio network aired Orson Welles' radio dramatization of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds. Welles took Wells' book and transformed it into a series of radio news reports, duplicating in form and presentation what people would hear if Martians were actually invading Earth. As you probably know, mass panic ensued, with millions of Americans running screaming through the streets, having heart attacks, and generally believing that the world was coming to an end.

It's a great story; the only problem is, it didn't happen that way. Not that there weren't some people who flipped out, because there were a few. All indications were that those who believed it was real were socially isolated and highly suggestible for one reason or another. But there was no mass panic, nobody firing their guns at passing clouds, nobody committing suicide rather than be scooped up by the alien invaders. So why has this tale persisted?

The simplest answer is that it's a great story. Especially from the standpoint of our time, it allows us to feel superior to the naive rubes of an earlier day; surely nothing like that could happen to people as media-savvy as us. The myth was also probably sustained by the fact that the period right afterward began the era of concern about the effects of mass media on a gullible public. One of the stories people told about World War II was that Adolf Hitler wielded the medium of radio with almost magical power to turn the Germans from a civilized people into a nation of murderers.

And finally, the myth of mass panic over War of the Worlds was created within hours by a competing mass medium, newspapers. As Jefferson Pooley and Michael Socolow explain, within hours newspaper reporters were talking about panic in the streets, and the next day they splashed headlines on their front pages like "Fake Radio 'War' Stirs Terror Through U.S." Journalists who thought that the relatively new medium of radio might destroy their industry certainly had an interest in highlighting its alleged ability to turn the country into a bunch of raving lunatics.

So like many stories of extraordinary media power, the War of the Worlds tale is overblown. But that's an interesting story, too.

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