Seventy-five years ago, on October 30, 1938, one of the most notorious media events in our history occurred: the instantly infamous CBS “War of the Worlds” broadcast. Even today, most people know the basic story. In honor of Halloween, Orson Welles and his colleagues at the Mercury Theatre on the Air staged a radio play version of H.G. Wells’ story, with Martians landing in Grover’s Mill, N.J. and working their way toward New York City, releasing poison gas as they went. By the end of the broadcast, CBS’s switchboard was ablaze, phone lines to police stations were jammed, people around the country were panicking, and people in Newark, N.J. wrapped their faces in wet towels and drove like hell out of town. Typical headlines were “Radio Station’s ‘Attack By Mars’ Panics Thousands” and “Many Flee Homes to Escape ‘Gas Raid’ from Mars.” Those who tuned in late and did not hear the opening disclaimer that this was a play were especially prone to being scared. In the first three weeks after the broadcast, newspapers around the country ran more than 12,500 stories about its impact. Researchers estimated, conservatively, that about 6 million people (a small audience then) heard the show, and about a million or so were genuinely frightened.
It’s tempting today to feel superior to those listeners who panicked, and to think nothing like this could happen today, especially given the multiple means — TV, Google, Twitter — for double checking such a story. But people often forget the climate in which this happened. It was still the Great Depression, with the unemployment rate hovering around 19 percent. In places like Flint, Mich., nearly half of the city’s families were on public relief. In 1937, 477 sit-down strikes took place, involving about 400,000 workers. And even as Americans were experiencing this seemingly relentless economic uncertainty, another world war seemed imminent. Just one month before the broadcast, Hitler, having already annexed Austria, demanded that Germany be allowed to annex a portion of Czechoslovakia. With radio an increasing source of news for Americans, millions were glued to their sets that September, accustomed to having regular programming interrupted by urgent news bulletins and on-the-spot reporting about the latest negotiations, turmoil in Czechoslovakia and the possibility of a German invasion. And then, of course, “War of the Worlds,” mimicking the news bulletin style, was very skillfully done.
But there was another factor that helps explain the panic — certain people were more likely than others to believe the invasion was real. The major study of the panic, The Invasion From Mars by Hadley Cantril (1940), found that those who examined either the facts of the show — that spaceships from Mars couldn’t possibly arrive in a matter of minutes — or went to external sources, by changing channels or looking up the description of the show in the newspaper, understood the story was fictitious. Those who failed to “fact check” in some manner were more likely to panic, as were those with the least education and those who were highly suggestible. The researchers also found that religiosity was an important factor in people falling for the broadcast; those who had strong, Bible-based beliefs thought this was the apocalypse, an act of God.
While it might be the case that a “War of the Worlds” panic could not happen today, we have been witnessing a slower, more long-term titration of panic through the media, especially Fox News and right-wing radio, often affecting audiences not dissimilar from those described above. Many believe that the Affordable Care Act would mandate “death panels,” that Obama wasn’t born in the United States, that climate change is a hoax, that vaccines cause autism, that humans and dinosaurs coexisted, that abortions cause breast cancer, that you can’t get pregnant from a rape that is “legitimate,” and on and on. Remember, Bush, Cheney et al. convinced about half of Americans that Saddam Hussein was behind 9⁄11.
So before we look back at 1938 with a smug sense of superiority and imagine that people today would never fall for a deliberately staged set of fictions, we need to appreciate that it’s just the delivery that’s different: not a one-shot blast of misinformation and panic, but a steady drip, drip, drip of corrosion much more damaging than anything produced by the Mercury Theatre in 1938.