The broadcast is famous; or for some infamous. It was October 30th, 1938, the second world war was yet to break out, however, it is important to remember that fascism was on the rise in Europe, people also had a fear of ‘reds under the beds’ and had suspicions against many both within the public and private realm that they might indeed be communists. It was against this backdrop that an as yet unknown actor called Orson Welles and a small band of colleagues recorded their adaptation of H.G. Welles’s War of the Worlds. Little did they know at the time that the recording would seem so realistic to some listeners that they thought the country was actually being invaded! Some believed it to be an actual invasion by aliens or in some minds, given the times, by another country.
It is these events that are the subject of Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the art of fake news, a book by A. Brad Schwarz. The book starts simply enough, recalling accounts from various people who had, at one stage or another, tuned into the broadcast. The first two chapters devote themselves to recounted memories of people who heard the original broadcast and their impressions at the time; so much so that the reader begins to wonder if this is to be the entire content of the book. Thankfully, however, as the book progresses the reader also learns about social norms at the time, how the media in the United States was regulated and how different mediums adapted and competed with each other in a changing media landscape.
The writer also goes on crucially to explain that it wasn’t just the broadcast itself but also the stage at which each individual listener turned their radio on that night and the way in which they, as consumers of the programme, interpreted what they were listening to. Some had heard it from the start and knew exactly what the Mercury Theatre company were doing, others only heard snippets, without its accompanying advertisements and warnings, and this is why some took the broadcast to be detailing a real invasion.
Schwartz goes on, significantly to address the fact that; when it comes to the media, it is not always the intended purpose of a broadcast by it’s broadcasters that matter but the way in which it is interpreted by the media consumer. As a phrase popularised by a certain president suggests, news and events can often be interpreted the wrong way, and this is what causes mass hysteria.
Ultimately it is the way in which the author draws on events from the past to illustrate that these events and the way in which they have been interpreted are in many ways quite often more significant than the event itself. It is the way media works today and was no different in 1938.