Politics & Policy

Fake News Turns 80

Orson Welles in the CBS Radio studio (Wikimedia)
Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds was used to create false panic.

In New York City on Halloween night in 1938, 22-year-old Orson Welles had just completed his radio broadcast based on H. G. Wells’s science-fiction book The War of the Worlds. Wells added a new twist. Instead of being a simple dramatization, the program was presented as a real-time news report. Using fictional newsflashes and updates, the program began with a report of a Martian attack originating in Grovers Mill, N.J. For the next 52 minutes, reporters conveyed their horror as they witnessed the rapidly escalating death and destruction the Martians were visiting upon the helpless earthlings. When the 52-minute program was complete, Welles exited CBS Studios and entered mythical history.

The next day, newspapers across the country reported that Welles’s production had been so frighteningly realistic that listeners had mistaken the story for an actual news report. The next morning a single headline dominated the front page of the New York Daily News: “Fake Radio ‘War’ Stirs Terror Through the U.S.” The tabloid was not alone in manufacturing the narrative that Welles had tricked citizens from across the country into thinking that America was being besieged by little green men. The New York Times covered the event with the same breathless urgency. They blasted the headline “Radio Listeners in Panic Taking War Drama as Fact” in the center column on the front page.

The stories reported that the program had inspired near-riots, traffic jams, and mass hysteria. Most of the stories neglected to mention that four different announcements written into the script reminded the audience that they were listening to a fictional story, not an actual newscast. Admitting this would have crippled the attempts to create a controversy and killed any chance for newspapers to manipulate the crisis to regain financial and moral superiority over the disruptive new medium of radio.

In creating the fantastical story of the War of the Worlds aftermath, newspapers were committed to a goal that mattered more to them than journalistic integrity: They were committed to self-preservation. Since its invention, radio had been encroaching on the newspapers’ business. As radios became more commonplace in American households, newspapers worried that they could become extinct. Radio possessed an enormous advantage in its ability to broadcast news and events live, as they happened, while newspapers were limited to one or two editions per day.

By the time Welles created his Mercury Theater on the Air, radio had shattered the newspapers’ monopoly on journalism and its monolithic power in shaping public opinion. But radio was stealing more than mindshare and influence from newspapers; it was also stealing valuable advertising revenue. Because radio posed such an existential threat to newspapers, its editors looked upon Welles’s Halloween stunt as an early Christmas present: an opportunity to discredit the entire medium of radio as amateurish, reckless, and dangerous. In contrast, newspapers positioned themselves as the only trustworthy purveyors of news.

An editorial published in the New York Times crystallized the newspapers’ disdain. Published two days later and entitled “Terror by Radio,” the editorial scolded Welles for threatening public safety. “What began as entertainment might readily have ended in disaster,” the editorial warned. Expanding its scope, it went on to damn the entire radio industry. “Radio is new, but it has adult responsibilities. It has not mastered itself or the medium it uses. It does many things which the newspapers learned long ago not to do, such as mixing its news and advertising,” the Times wrote.

Yet it was the Times — along with most of the print media — that had shirked its “adult responsibilities” far more than Welles. In their reporting, newspapers had fallen laughably short of the most basic journalistic standards. They were not reporting facts. They were manipulating a few and inventing many more.

It turned out that only 2 percent of the radio-listening audience even tuned in to hear The War of the Worlds that evening. Perhaps some small fragment of that fractional audience may have been alarmed by the innovative broadcast. But it was the coverage of the program in the next morning’s papers that was the real source of widespread panic: The papers failed to check the credibility of a few isolated and anecdotal reports. Even more irresponsibly, they reported them as representative of the entire American population.

The non-sensationalized and true account of the program’s reception received little attention from newspapers when reported several months later. By that point, several citizens had filed lawsuits. The FCC had opened an investigation at Congress’s request. Some suggested that Welles should go to prison. But Welles did not go to jail. He went to Hollywood. He effectively abandoned radio and became a pioneer in another medium, film, by creating one of the greatest movies in the history of cinema, Citizen Kane.

His co-writer for the broadcast, Howard Koch, moved to Hollywood as well. He received an Academy Award for co-writing Casablanca. But just when he thought the War of the Worlds controversy was behind him, Koch found himself at the center of another witch-hunt in the form of McCarthyism.

Jack Warner, the President of Warner Brothers, named Howard Koch as one of the twelve names on his Red List that he willfully delivered to the House Un-American Affairs Committee (HUAC). Koch was one of several non-Communists fingered by the trigger-happy studio mogul. Many believe that Warner’s motivations had less to do with national security and more to do with settling a personal vendetta against folks like Koch who joined a strike against Warner Brothers in 1945. Warner had plenty of powerful people ready to accept his charges of treason without question.

Warner was joined by a familiar collection of fearmongers — grandstanding newspaper columnists, bloodless bureaucrats, and opportunistic politicians. Except this time, they were far more successful in creating a moral panic that destroyed innocent people and their families. Koch was blacklisted by Hollywood in 1951 and moved to Europe, where he survived by writing under a pseudonym.

That’s the thing about moral panics. They are not created by Martians; they are created by opinion leaders and people in authority who place limits on what can be said and who can say it. Selfish agendas supplant universal freedoms of truth and justice. Independent thought is sacrificed for groupthink.

In such a climate, we become the proles in George Orwell’s 1984. We are intentionally kept in the dark, left only with our “petty specific grievances” and whipped into a fury about new or unpopular ideas or expression. Once we are distracted, the “larger evils invariably escape” our notice until we become a nameless and shapeless mob.

Today, we have more in common with the dystopia presented by Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World than with that of 1984. Our problem lies not with the impoverishment of available news and information, but its proliferation. Yet both extremes present us with a scenario even more dangerous than murderous Martians: a manufactured moral panic that demands that we relinquish our right to pursue truth and practice free speech and instead unquestioningly accept conventional wisdom as gospel truth for the greater good of those in power.

Micheal Flaherty is the co-founder of Epiphany Story Lab and a writer and film producer living in Boston.

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