On Halloween Eve, Oct. 30, 1938, a 23-year-old Orson Welles narrated the “War of the Worlds,” an adaptation of the 1898 H.G. Wells novel of the same name. The dramatization, aired over the CBS Radio network, of a Martian invasion on Earth caused mass panic, according to a narrative repeated over the years.
But is this really true? Jefferson Poole, a communications professor at Muhlenberg College, and Michael Socolow, a journalism professor at the University of Maine, are both now calling the long held notion of nationwide hysteria a myth, in an article for Slate. Professors Poole and Socolow write the broadcast did not actually fool people. Both blame the so-called hysteria linked to the broadcast’s aftermath on the newspaper industry. Radio competed with newspapers for advertising dollars so the newspaper industry as a result, say the professors, showed that radio was an untrustworthy source for news. Newspapers used the “War of the Worlds” broadcast as an example of radio’s lack of credibility.
For instance, here is an editorial from The New York Times on Nov. 1:
“Radio is new but it has adult responsibilities. It has not mastered itself or the material it uses. It does many things which the newspapers learned long ago not to do, such as mixing its news and its advertising. Newspapers know the two must be rigidly separated and plainly marked. In the broadcast of The War of the Worlds blood- curdling fiction was offered in exactly the manner that real news would have been given….. Radio officials should have thought twice before mingling this news technique with fiction so terrifying.”
Professors Poole and Socolow also point out in the article that only 2 percent of the population tuned into the broadcast.