30 October 2018

80 Years Later: Orson Welles and Fake News

Intro Copy

How would Orson Welles' fake newscast based on H.G. Wells' novel The War of the Worlds be received in today's era of fake news? 80 years ago today, on Oct. 30, 1938, a radio program announced that an alien invasion was underway across the east coast of the United States. The following day, various newspapers reported accounts of widespread panic. The CBS Radio program The Mercury Theatre on the Air, a weekly hour-long broadcast featuring radio plays based on classic literary works, decided to adapt H.G. Wells' 19th century science fiction novel, The War of the Worlds, for radio. At the helm was 23-year-old actor Orson Welles who, having some experience writing and acting in radio productions, agreed to narrate the fictional alien attack. Beginning with a series of explosions on Mars, news bulletins inform viewers that a U.F.O. has landed in New Jersey. Emerging from the spacecraft is a tentacled alien, a Martian, who promptly fires a heat ray at nearby police officers. The heat ray ignites a forest, incinerates cars, and causes mass panic. After enduring some technical difficulties, the newscast resumes, announcing that New Jersey has declared martial law and has sent the state militia to attack the spacecraft. Giant Martian tripods rise at the site and begin to destroy the militia. The narrator informs the listeners that emergency evacuations are ongoing as throngs of refugees choke the highways. U.S. armed forces launch a counterattack on the tripods, which release poisonous black smoke into the air. As New Jersey endures the Martian army invasion, reports come in about an attack on New York City. Tripods wade through the Hudson River, black smoke engulfs skyscrapers, and terrified civilians dive into the East River "like rats." Eventually the Martians die, falling victim to germs, and the invasion comes to a halt. Despite Welles' disclaimer at the end of the program that this was not, in fact, a real invasion but a dramatized contemporary retelling of a science fiction novel, telephone calls by hysterical listeners flooded CBS News headquarters, causing a panic. Fears of Impending War In the late 1930s, Americans received their news primarily through radio and printed newspapers. At that time, the media circulated reports of Nazi Germany's aggressive, successful invasions of surrounding countries. Americans began to take notice when Adolf Hitler announced Germany's intentions to acquire Lebensraum (living space) for the German people--a name that masked plans to invade other countries and claim foreign lands by force. Hitler's calculated land grabs reached a new high when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain endorsed his support of the Munich Agreement in late September 1938, in which four countries agreed to surrendering part of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany. This appeasement of Hitler set the world on edge. In fact, by October 1938, Germany had already:
  • Opened the Buchenwald concentration camp (July 15, 1937)
  • Annexed Austria, incorporating it into greater Nazi Germany (March 11, 1938)
  • Declared German Jews' passports invalid (Oct. 5, 1938)
An announcement of yet another invasion by Nazi Germany had the potential to set off a worldwide catastrophe (and certainly did, 11 months later, when Britain and France declared war on Germany and began World War II). "The War of the Worlds" and More Fake News In the current era of fake news, when a U.S. president can send a worldwide message instantaneously via Twitter, when tensions with nuclear capable North Korea as well as China are at a high, "The War of the Worlds" broadcast provides a valuable lesson. It falls on the individual to be responsible for fact checking information. Whether written in a speech, a print article or an online blurb of text, the blind consumption of information contributes to an inaccurate understanding of current events and creates a misinformed public. False information, whether spread intentionally or unintentionally, can create hysteria. Verifying unusual claims, be it an invasion of New Jersey or an incoming missile attack on Hawaii, is necessary to fight the spread of disinformation. As people learned in the aftermath of the broadcast, it is better to verify the news than fall prey to panic. More resources on Orson Welles can be found on his eLibrary Research Topic Page. Help your students to identify fake news via the Fake News Research Topic Page on eLibrary and this ProQuest blog post.