How Orson Welles Pioneered the Horror of “Fake News” Brad Schwartz examines the young Welles’s infamous radio “drama” and its lasting impact on American culture.

Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles's War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News

Brad Schwartz (Hill and Wang, 2014) 227 pages with notes and index

“America Attacked! Skyscrapers Collapse Under Enemy Invasion—Unbelievable Scenes of terror in New York.” A shocked America reels from reports of widespread destruction in the Homeland. Are these hysterical bulletins from September 11, 2001? No, try October 30, 1938. These dramatic descriptions came not from CNN but CBS. Not from Anderson Cooper on television but Orson Welles on radio, in his notorious adaptation of the H.G. Welles 1898 classic The War of the Worlds.

Brad Schwartz examines the story behind the Mercury Theatre’s radio drama and its lasting impact on American culture in Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News. It is an absorbing, penetrating examination of the fabled broadcast event and its influence on the news and entertainment industries for years to come. Schwartz’s account is a “behind the mic” look at the wunderkind Welles, the twenty-three-year-old ringmaster of the experimental theatre group that had already brought audiences noted live radio adaptations of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

The vampire would lead Welles to more fame than The Bard, however, as his name ultimately became synonymous with terror. And Martians. He would be nicknamed Orson Welles, The Man From Mars, immortalized by generations for the ultimate dramatic trick or treat—sixty minutes of panic on that Halloween night in 1938. Broadcast Hysteria pulls back the curtain to reveal a young wizard with a sepulchral voice and dark brooding presence out to challenge the airtime supremacy of a much lighter character named Charlie McCarthy and his ventriloquist friend Edgar Bergen. CBS’s War of the Worlds would be going head-to-wooden-head with NBC’s megahit The Chase and Sanborn Hour. It was invading Martians versus a wisecracking dummy and his ventriloquist friend, Edgar Bergen and it was no contest. Bergen may have won hands down, but War of the Worlds won Welles his place in American cultural history.

Schwartz has “buried the lede” in this fascinating, but familiar tale, by saving a startling new revelation for the final chapter: On February 12, 1949, an imitation broadcast of Welles’s adaptation aired on Radio Quito in Ecuador. Its producers followed the Mercury Theatre’s template but with one crucial difference: “ … Páez and Alcaraz did not begin their show with an announcement that it was fiction, nor, apparently, did they plan any interruptions until the end.”

Welles played fast and loose with an American public, Depression scarred, still jittery from Hitler’s annexation of Czechoslovakia, and New England sifting through the rubble of The Great Hurricane of 1938, just weeks before the Halloween air date. Little wonder that with nerves already on edge, latecomers to the broadcast would be prone to panic.

Panicked crowds marched on the buildings that housed Radio Quito and the national newspaper El Comercio to verify reports of the rumors of the Martian invasion. When they discovered the broadcast was a hoax, the mob attacked the radio station, throwing rocks and setting it ablaze with shouts of ‘Death to the radio.’

Schwartz then reveals the shocking climax to the riot: “By now, the fire had completely consumed the Commercio building … More police arrived and used tear gas and military tanks to disperse the mob so the firefighters could reach the flames. They battled the blaze until 3 a.m. … The next day, only its front wall remained standing. The authorities found about twenty corpses in its wreckage, and another fifteen people were injured in the violence that night.”

Authorities drew up indictments for the broadcast’s creators but both managed to escape punishment. In a further irony, the primary author of this “copycat” Ecuadorian version, Eduardo Alcaraz, moved to Mexico “where he went on to become a successful actor in film and television.”

And, so, too, did Orson Welles. In the tumultuous year following the “War of the Worlds” broadcast Welles signed an unprecedented film production deal with RKO Pictures, eventually resulting in his most famous film, Citizen Kane. His ‘co-conspirators’ on War also went on to brilliant careers and Academy Awards. Among the many members of the Mercury troupe were writer Howard Koch (Casablanca, Sergeant York), famous music composer, Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, Vertigo, Taxi Driver), and Welles’s co-producer, John Houseman of the TV drama The Paper Chase.

The word conspirator is aptly used, for in the aftermath of the “War of the Worlds” broadcast, a storm of controversy ensued and some FCC officials believed that Welles and others should face legal punishment or Industry censure. Others called for more strict regulation of the airwaves.

None resulted but the argument over broadcasters’ responsibility to discern the distinction between news and entertainment rages on into today’s debates among media scholars, Congressional watchdogs, and an increasingly concerned citizenry.

Schwartz makes the convincing case that the original hysteria and panic over War was highly exaggerated and hyped by print journalists eager to capitalize on the nationwide story to sell newspapers: “With their huge headlines and alarmist prose, America’s newspapers turned War of the Worlds into a national event.”

Schwartz also provides insight into the competition between the prestigious publishing world and the new threat emanating from upstart radio broadcasters: “Here again is the sense that newspapers saw themselves as older, wiser, and able to teach radio a thing or two. They often sound like a parent reprimanding a wayward child. The New York Times, for one, gave radio an extended lecture on how to behave. ‘Radio is new but it has adult responsibilities … It does many things which the newspapers learned long ago not to do, such as mixing its news and advertising.”

Schwartz emphasizes the relevance of Welles’s broadcast to contemporary media issues facing Internet content providers and consumers. He draws a parallel between the Golden Age of Radio and the web with its instantaneous global reach. “Radio could get there first but it could not give the full picture.” In Welles’s day, his show could “go viral,” but it was the newspaper’s job to provide context. In the case of War this was further complicated as newspapers owned their own radio stations: “Rather than declare war on the radio, the (Chicago) Tribune, like a lot of large newspapers, opted for synergy. They used their paper to promote their radio station, and vice versa. This in the long run was wise from a commercial standpoint but it led to playing dangerously fast and loose with the rules of journalism.”

Orson Welles played fast and loose with an American public, Depression scarred, still jittery from Hitler’s annexation of Czechoslovakia, and New England sifting through the rubble of The Great Hurricane of 1938, just weeks before the Halloween air date. Little wonder that with nerves already on edge, latecomers to the broadcast would be prone to panic. Schwartz writes:

“Many people picked up the phone almost immediately after hearing a rumor or fake news flash, with little understanding of what was being reported.”

Despite newspaper accounts of mass panic, Schwartz concludes that the hysteria was anything but mass: “There were no reported deaths or serious injuries caused by panicked flight. There were no car accidents, no miscarriages, no suicides … It was only later, once the “panic broadcast” entered American folklore, that stories of jammed streets and groups of farmers roaming the Jersey countryside, shotguns ready to perforate the first spaceman they saw, began to spring up.”

Shwartz provides us with fascinating research done shortly after the broadcast by Princeton social psychologist, Hadley Cantril, who estimated that out of an audience of six million, one million listeners nationwide were terribly frightened. Schwartz concedes, “that is not insignificant,” but through his own research of hundreds of post-broadcast interviews and letters he asserts, “One million Americans (out of a total population of 130 million) may have briefly believed the Earth was under attack from the Martians that night—or, at least, that something horrible was happening in New Jersey—but almost none of them actually panicked.”

The author also cites interesting statistics of negative and positive letters and calls received by the FCC, CBS, and the Mercury Theatre which reported seventy-eight letters of protest, yet eighty-two pro-Welles responses. Schwartz liberally quotes from these letters throughout Broadcast Hysteria and they add color and authenticity to the narrative.

Broadcast Hysteria wisely offers up some treats to counter the tricks Welles’s program gave birth to on that Halloween. Schwartz illustrates that the “War of the Worlds” phenomenon is not to be perceived as some crazy old uncle reaching out to our modern ‘cyber family’ from the nostalgia of Golden Radioland. That program helped give birth to the new science of public opinion polling, modern marketing research, and anti-propaganda strategies by studying the origins of mob psychology. The hysteria generated by War provides today’s Internet users with a cautionary tale when posting on social media networks: Look before you tweet. Be careful what you put out there—somebody might just believe you.

It is when Schwartz takes us between the media lines, rather than behind the familiar scenes of Welles’s famous broadcast, that his work assumes more depth and relevance. The first half of Broadcast Hysteria is devoted to a more popular telling of an oft-told tale. Boy scares world, world gets panicked, boy gets success.

The second half of Broadcast Hysteria becomes far more incisive as Schwartz departs from the “pop-anecdotal” path and takes us down a more thoughtful, scholarly analytic trail. Here, the author explores the REAL panic: our age-old anxiety about the power of the media and its continuing role as a major player in the future of American democracy.