The news media response to War of the Worlds in 1938 reverberates today, reports Richard J. Tofel in a Wall Street Journal review of Broadcast Hysteria by A. Brad Schwartz (5/15/15). “The hysteria” when Orson Welles “took to the airwaves of CBS with a fake newscast reporting a Martian invasion of New Jersey” was mostly a result of the ensuing news media coverage. “There were no car accidents, no miscarriages, no suicides,” Brad writes in the book. Only false news reports that there were.
Of the six million listeners, about one million “seem to have mistaken the drama for a news show, at least at first. Most of them appear to have missed the part about the Martians and thought there was either a natural disaster or some sort of battle going on west of New York. Yet if radio listeners did not panic, newspaper reporters surely did … publicizing ‘a nationwide panic that never actually existed’.” One result was “a campaign to rein in the power of radio, a relatively new mass medium that might, it was thought, produce hysteria generally.”
War of the Worlds sounded plausible at the time because radio listeners were used to hearing bulletins about Hitler’s threats and subsequent actions, for example. True reports of hurricanes leaving hundreds dead also made the fake newscast sound plausible. Radio’s power endures to the present day — versus television and the Internet — largely because it forces listeners to visualize its creations. “It’s not so much that picturing Martians in one’s head makes them easier to believe in as it is that people see the Martians they are ready to see,” Brad writes.