‘War of the Worlds’ Hysteria Makes a Great Media Story, But Not for the Reason You Think

You’re probably familiar with the story of the 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds.

But if not, I’ll recap it real quick.

In late October of that year, the book of the same name, written by sci-fi legend H.G. Wells, was repurposed for radio and broadcast across the country on CBS Radio. The broadcast really bent the rules of radio drama, as it was presented in breaking news bulletins in realtime, interrupting a staged “regular” program. The tale suggested that aliens, like from outer space, were invading, and it was up to humanity to stop them.

Anyway, this freaked people right the hell out. Though the program identified itself as The War of the Worlds at the outset, some turned in late and  The format of the program was enough to cause mass hysteria, with newspapers, CBS, and police stations fielding frightened phone calls. Some loaded guns. Some gathered in the streets.

Or at least, that’s how legend has it. And to some extent, it’s true. However, to hear the story relayed today, its message is that people just weren’t ready for this form of simulation entertainment, that it resulted in full-on national crisis. In fact, according to National Geographic, only about 20 percent of listeners were fooled — or less than a million people. A huge number, to be sure, but the panic was only so widespread.

That’s not what people were led to believe. In the next month, newspapers published more than 12,000 articles about the supposed panic the broadcast caused. And therein lies the culprit of why history has exaggerated this particular event: newspapers saw an opportunity to strike. From NatGeo:

At the time, newspapers considered radio an upstart rival. Some in the print press, resentful of the superior radio coverage during the Munich crisis, may have sought to prove a point about the irresponsibility of the radio broadcast.

“The exaggeration of the War of the Worlds story can be interpreted as the print media’s revenge for being badly scooped during the previous month,” [broadcast historian Elizabeth] McLeod said.

In other words, newspapers were all too gleeful to point out the issues of that wild new media, and to convey the grave danger it could pose should society turn elsewhere for their news. Just something to keep in mind the next time you read about the degradation of the media, wherever you might read (or hear) about it.

photo credit: Serg C, Creative Commons/flickr