War of the Worlds – Fake News! About Fake News!

So 80 years ago at Halloween time, Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre of the Air broadcast the historic War of the Worlds radio drama that set off a nationwide panic at the (fake!) news of Martians landing in New Jersey and launching an attack on Americans.

Although UK newspaper The Telegraph claimed in an article two years ago that reports of widespread panic were a myth (fake news about fake news!), I personally give way more credence to the reporting done on the scene by the United Press International (UPI) on the actual night of the broadcast itself, October 30, 1938 (click here to link to the archived article on the UPI’s website). And here’s a Washington Post article from October 30, 1968, marking thirty years on from that broadcast and associated panic.

According to that UPI report, people in New Jersey fled their homes in the immediate aftermath of the show’s announcement that areas nearby had been gas-bombed by the aliens. The Newark, New Jersey, police department received 2,000 phone calls within an hour of the radio show’s initial reports of the attack. And because people in New Jersey were calling their relatives across the country to warn them of the Martians’ invasion—and this was in the era of really expensive long-distance telephone rates, so imagine the significance of such a phone call on the receiving end—the panic spread quickly beyond New Jersey and the East Coast. And because all of those relatives in Kansas and elsewhere began calling their local authorities to get more news (because no Twitter, Facebook, or TELEVISION!), the fake news about fake news prompted even more generation of fake news. With devastating effect: According to the UPI article, at least two heart attacks and a stroke in Tulsa, Oklahoma, were attributed directly to the radio show.

I remember listening to a rebroadcast of The War of the Worlds right around Halloween when I was a child. Actually, now that I think about it, I imagine it was probably around Halloween in 1968, which would have been the 30th anniversary of the original broadcast. Listening to that rebroadcast was fascinating and marvelous, and I felt somehow privileged that I was able to experience this historic event for myself. It was like a time-machine connection to the 1930s, especially with the broadcast  interrupted by the news of invasion being a show featuring the music of Ramon Raquello and his orchestra coming to us live from “The Meridian Room” of the Hotel Park Plaza in New York.

It was especially interesting to see how the news story developed. From the initial observation of an atmospheric disturbance somewhere over Nova Scotia (I think it was) to the first reports coming in from New Jersey to, finally, all hell breaking loose and basically full-out war between the Martian invaders and us.

I found the complete broadcast on YouTube, uploaded by someone named David Webb, who has a YouTube channel devoted mostly to musicians from his hometown of Basingstoke in southern England. (Thank you, Mr. Webb!)

Enjoy 🙂

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
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2 Responses to War of the Worlds – Fake News! About Fake News!

  1. I listened to the recording a few years ago. What an idea to do something like that? I wonder if they even had any idea of how people would react. I know they did announce at the beginning that it was a play, but probably not many heard that! What a thing radio was back then!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I listen to the radio when driving to and from work, but that’s it now. Radio was a huge part of my life when I was a kid, teenager, young adult. I don’t know if that’s age alone or if it’s technology changing or what. I can hardly imagine the role radio must have played in my grandparents’ lives!


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