Wednesday marks the 75th anniversary of Orson Welles’ electrifying War of the Worlds broadcast, in which the Mercury Theatre on the Air enacted a Martian invasion of Earth. “Upwards of a million people, [were] convinced, if only briefly, that the United States was being laid waste by alien invaders,” narrator Oliver Platt informs us in the new PBS documentary commemorating the program. The panic inspired by Welles made War of the Worlds perhaps the most notorious event in American broadcast history.
That’s the story you already know—it’s the narrative widely reprinted in academic textbooks and popular histories. With actors dramatizing the reaction of frightened audience members (based on contemporaneous letters), the new documentary, part of PBS’s American Experience series, reinforces the notion that naïve Americans were terrorized by their radios back in 1938. So did this weekend’s episode of NPR’s Radiolab, which opened with the assertion that on Oct. 30, 1938, “The United States experienced a kind of mass hysteria that we’ve never seen before.”
There’s only one problem: The supposed panic was so tiny as to be practically immeasurable on the night of the broadcast. Despite repeated assertions to the contrary in the PBS and NPR programs, almost nobody was fooled by Welles’ broadcast.
How did the story of panicked listeners begin? Blame America’s newspapers. Radio had siphoned off advertising revenue from print during the Depression, badly damaging the newspaper industry. So the papers seized the opportunity presented by Welles’ program to discredit radio as a source of news. The newspaper industry sensationalized the panic to prove to advertisers, and regulators, that radio management was irresponsible and not to be trusted. In an editorial titled “Terror by Radio,” the New York Times reproached “radio officials” for approving the interweaving of “blood-curdling fiction” with news flashes “offered in exactly the manner that real news would have been given.” Warned Editor and Publisher, the newspaper industry’s trade journal, “The nation as a whole continues to face the danger of incomplete, misunderstood news over a medium which has yet to prove … that it is competent to perform the news job.”
The contrast between how newspaper journalists experienced the supposed panic, and what they reported, could be stark. In 1954, Ben Gross, the New York Daily News’ radio editor, published a memoir in which he recalled the streets of Manhattan being deserted as his taxi sped to CBS headquarters just as War of the Worlds was ending. Yet that observation failed to stop the Daily News from splashing the panic story across this legendary cover a few hours later.