Last night, the PBS series “American Experience” marked the 75th anniversary of the most infamous Halloween trick ever perpetrated on the American public: Orson Welles’ Oct. 30, 1938 radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds.” A perfect storm of zeitgeist unease and mid-broadcast station browsing caused thousands of panicked listeners to actually believe that the country had been invaded by beings from Mars.
As the documentary chronicled, the stage was set for mass hysteria by the time then-23-year-old Welles and company began their broadcast. The nation was still gripped by worry and fear brought on by the ongoing Great Depression. The year before, listeners were shocked by live radio coverage of the Hindenburg disaster. But still; Martians? Yes; Martians. Frantic listeners across the country fled their homes with their families. According to the program, residents of Providence deluged the power company with calls to turn off city lights so invaders could not find the city. In New Jersey, the setting for Welles’ radio adaptation, national guardsmen flooded armories with calls asking where to report.
Maybe “simple” isn’t the right word (not with a Depression and a looming world war), but it was certainly a less connected time. The radio was it for Americans. It was the pervasive medium and one that got much of its power from the way it engaged listeners’ imaginations.
So in these savvier, more sophisticated and technologically advanced times, it’s nice to think that something like “The War of the Worlds” could not happen again. Except that it does. A lot. Not on the grand scale of Welles’ broadcast, but thanks to the global reach and instant communication of the Internet, coupled with a 24-hour news cycle that craves content, mini-hoaxes and rush-to-judgment misunderstandings are all too common.
The genius of the Welles broadcast is that it got people to believe what they didn’t want to believe. In today’s more fragmented and polarized society, Internet hoaxes only serve to confirm for people what they already and willingly believe. Recently on Fox News, the self-described “voice of the opposition,” anchor Anna Kooiman apologized for falsely reporting an item from a satirical website that in the midst of the government shutdown, President Obama had personally paid to keep the International Museum of Muslim Cultures open.
On the other side of the political spectrum, detractors of Sarah Palin were all too willing to believe an item posted on the satirical Daily Currant website that she had appeared on “Fox and Friends” to ramble incoherently about Jesus celebrating Easter with followers. For the record: No, she did not, but that didn’t stop CNN’s Piers Morgan from tweeting a link to the story (he later claimed to know it was fake).
In the case of “War of the Worlds,” much of the panicked reaction can be at least partly excused by the fact that many listeners tuned in late and thus missed the program’s introduction. Turns out “Mercury Theatre on the Air” had a limited audience and that the reason people found it that night was because they were “channel surfing” during a musical number on a much more popular competing program starring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthey.
It’s one thing for ordinary Internet surfers to be taken in by false stories abetted by sophisticated graphic techniques, the 21st century equivalent to Orson Welles’ brilliant docu-drama format for his “War of the Worlds” broadcast, and the urgency of social media. But how can major news agencies, newspapers, and networks be taken in time after time? Not even the venerable New York Times is immune. In 2011, it fell for a story in the Onion that President Obama had appeared on the cover of teen-zine Tiger Beat. For real. The New. York. Times.
Welles would probably get a big kick out of the “more things change” of it all. It just goes to show that the maxim popularly ascribed to showman P.T. Barnum still rings true: There’s a sucker born every minute.