The War of the Worlds Panic Broadcast
On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles panicked a nation with a single broadcast. Or did he?
We know now that in the early years of the twentieth century this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own.
So began one of the most famous radio broadcasts of all time: the October 30, 1938 adaptation of H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds. Whenever Halloween rolls around, I always get in the mood to listen to the so-called "Panic Broadcast". It's one of my favouite radio shows. Not only is it a great program by itself, but I'm also fascinated by the story around it. Not the story that's usually told, however, but the far more interesting truth behind what we all think we know about the "Panic Broadcast."
Most people know the broad strokes of the popular story. On the evening before Halloween, the Mercury Theater on the Air starring Orson Welles performed a radio version of the popular science fiction story. What set the War of the Worlds broadcast apart from other shows the Mercury Theatre produced was its script, written by Howard Koch with input from Welles. Koch and Welles decided to use what was at the time an uncommon trick for creating realism: they framed the audio play as if it were itself a totally different radio broadcast experiencing a series of journalistic interruptions to the normal nightly entertainment.
What happened next is widely told today in books, in television documentaries, and online: many people tuned in after the show began and, lacking the context of the intro, assumed they actually were listening to news reports about New Jersey being invaded by Martians. This triggered a night of chaos as listeners panicked about the arrival of the interplanetary menace. People fled their homes; people flocked to churches; people called the police; people grabbed their guns; people contemplated suicide; all because of a fake news broadcast about Martian invaders.
The event created a social and political firestorm that threatened the radio industry's very existence. Within a few days, newspapers were reporting that "literally MILLIONS OF PEOPLE understood the broadcast to be REAL". A flurry of lawsuits was filed against CBS. Congressional hearings were declared, and regulations were imposed forbidding stations from airing fake news broadcasts. The Panic Broadcast has since become a morality tale for broadcasting, a warning against the misuse of the great power that media wields over the public.
At least, that's the way it's told. But how could reasonable people accept a fantastic event like Martian invaders as real? Before we answer that question, we need to ask a different question, one often asked here on Skeptoid: did it really happen the way it's told?
In fact, it probably didn't. Several researchers over the years have looked at the Panic Broadcast story and found the actual evidence for a supposed mass panic to be lacking. Instead, the known evidence suggests that any panic was small and localized, probably to the areas around New York City and New Jersey, the principal locations menaced in the broadcast. Outside of those areas, the most common reaction people had to the panic was to try and call either authorities or their loved ones in the affected areas. This resulted in jammed phone lines at a time when the phone system wasn't built to handle a high volume of simultaneous calls.
Further, most attempts to confirm stories about the mass panic have come up at best inconclusive. Even in the months immediately following the broadcast, for example, attempts to gather reports from hospitals in New Jersey and New York about radio-induced panic-related injuries or stress turned up empty despite many claims of injuries sustained by individuals during the panic. And recollections of those involved in the night's panic, including law enforcement officers and station executives, have varied wildly in their mostly unconfirmable details about how widespread the panic actually was.
A key problem with the story as it's usually told is the suggestion that "millions" of listeners were taken in by the fake broadcast. Not that many people were actually listening to the show. A ratings firm conducting calls on the night of the Panic Broadcast determined that only about 2% of American homes were listening in, many from the beginning (meaning they wouldn't have mistaken the show for a real event). And despite the popular claim that "many" homes turned the dial to CBS during a musical interlude on the popular Chase and Sandborn Hour, there's no hard evidence to back up this suggestion. It's more of an after-the-fact hypothesis for why listeners might have missed the beginning of the broadcast generated from a few after-the-fact anecdotes. Not to mention that listeners changing stations had plenty of other stations they might have landed on, stations uninterrupted by Martian invaders.
Yes, there were some people who were taken in by the Panic Broadcast. But they likely numbered in the thousands, not the millions, and they probably didn't remain panicked for long. So why do we all think that the country lost its collective gourd on the evening of October 30th, 1938?
Because the newspapers of the day reported it that way. In an ironic twist of history, the newspapers may have been responsible for ginning up a panic over the power of radio, the very thing they were accusing of ginning up a panic. The reason? Advertising revenues, which had declined drastically for the newspaper industry. Here's how Michael Socolow and Jefferson Pooley explained it in a 2008 article for Slate:
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 other words, the newspapers viewed radio in 1938 the same way they've viewed Internet journalism in recent years: as a threat to their bottom line. A radio broadcast mimicing a news broadcast for the sake of entertainment was an easy target and so the newspapers mounted a veritable crusade against radio in their coverage. They reported every story they heard, plastered bombastic headlines across the front pages, and published editorials demanding heavy government regulation — all hoping to drive people back to newspapers.
Their crusade was helped along by Welles himself, who saw self-promotional opportunity in the hype. Why go along with such a damaging story? Because nothing bad actually resulted from it. There was a lot of harumphing and a few proposed laws, but Welles didn't lose his place on the air — he was back performing Heart of Darkness a week later — and his radio show picked up its first sponsor within a few weeks of the broadcast. None of the lawsuits filed ever amounted to anything as the show hadn't actually violated any laws. All that happened was that Welles became the center of media attention while the entire nation talked at length about his radio program. In fact, Welles used the notoriety to gain a two-film contract with RKO Pictures, which led to the filming of Citizen Kane (a film that, perhaps fittingly, was a criticism of the newspaper industry).
Another culprit in the modern perception of the Panic Broadcast was the 1940 book The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic, which confirmed a lot of the newspaper's version of events. The book was very popular at the time of its release, as it presented its research in a dramatic way that made for good reading. However, significant methodological problems have been cited in the book. For one thing, 100 out of the 135 people interviewed were self-selected — they claimed to have been frightened and volunteered to talk with the researchers, with no effort made to confirm their anecdotes or to determine if they were engaging in after-the-fact me-too behavior. For another, the book relied on questionable data to place the number of people panicked by the broadcast at one million, a number that almost certainly exaggerates the extent of the panic. As it was widely read, however, The Invasion from Mars established much of the Panic Broadcast narrative we know today.
Okay, so let's go back to our original question: overblown or not, there were a number of people that night who panicked. Why did they? Theories have been floated over the years about how the newness of radio, the economic stress of the Depression, and the rumors of war in Europe may have set the stage for listeners to panic. However, I think the real culprit is simply our own flawed reasoning. Human beings routinely believe outrageous things with little evidence. Before laughing at the gullible rubes in 1938 who were fooled by the War of the Worlds, take a minute to think about how many of your friends and family share every dumb, unverified "news" story they see on Facebook.
Another factor is the "Telephone" effect — you know, the way information corrupts as it spreads from person to person. It very likely played a factor in the panic. W. Joseph Campbell notes that:
[I]t is tempting to suggest that what radio-induced fear there was that night was mostly spread by credulous people who had heard muddled and fragmentary accounts about the program and set about to alert others. This Paul Revere effect also offers an explanation for the many distorted, wildly inaccurate reports that circulated that night [...] The great variation in detail suggests that many people who were fear-stricken that night had not heard the Mercury Theatre dramatization but were swept up in a wave of second- and thirdhand accounts.
This is similar to what is sometimes called an "information cascade," or what might colloquially be called "following the herd." First, some rational people make bad decisions based on bad information; and then other rational people make the same bad decisions because they see the people prior to them coming to the same conclusion. These followers assume that the prior decision-makers may be acting on something they know, but the followers don't know, and the followers act not only on what they know, but on what they assume they don't know — especially in situations where time may be a pressure. In the case of the Panic Broadcast, the thought process might have gone something like this for many people:
"These people say there's a Martian invasion and that poison death gas is headed this way. That sounds highly unlikely, but they are fleeing the gas and while I could take the time to check the facts before I flee, that could lead to my death if they know something I don't. Better to run away and check the facts from a safer location."
There's also evidence that some of those who panicked didn't even think we were being invaded by Martians. There was fear in 1938 that Nazi Germany might attack the US in some way. Someone who wasn't listening directly to the broadcast, who only heard snippets of disconnected information about rockets, poison gas and mechanical war machines could easily plug in their own assumptions about who was responsible. Nazis were a more likely villain than Martians to be behind such an attack.
While there was definitely some localized panic caused by the Mercury Theatre's production of The War of the Worlds, the idea of a nationwide panic over invading aliens is simply overblown. The Panic Broadcast more a lesson about the way incomplete information can spread amongst a receptive but less informed audience than it is a dire warning about the power of the media. It's also a lesson to us all that when we hear a story we find hard to believe, we should always be skeptical. Or as Welles said at the end of the program:
So goodbye everybody, and remember the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody's there, that was no Martian. . .it's Hallowe'en.
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