Tuesday, July 17, 2012

War of the Panic

Artwork from the 1906 Belgian edition of The War of the Worlds by Henrique Alvim CorrĂ©a

Everyone knows that people who lived before now were stupid.  That’s why they couldn’t tell the difference between a real news program and the radio drama by Orson Welles, The War of the Worlds. Then everyone read about it in the newspapers the next day and realized how stupid they were – but felt better when they realized that everyone in the nation had panicked.

Really, how much of that is there to get wrong?

More than it would seem, apparently. 

First edition of The War of the Worlds, 1898.

First of all, Orson Welles didn’t create The War of the Worlds. I know that that sounds pretty obvious, but I’ve met people who were confused about it in the past. War of the Worlds was a book, written in 1898 by H.G. Wells (despite the similarity of their last names, Welles and Wells were not related). In the book, the story centers on Southern, England; Orson Welles changed it to the East Coast of the United States for his radio drama.

Let’s get one thing out of the way before I go any further here:

There was no nation-wide panic.

It is true that many people called the police stations wanting more information, but most of those were people who had turned in to the ratio station late and thought it was a broadcast about a German invasion.  This was in 1938, and Germany was in the news a lot thanks to a certain Adolf Hitler (he was Time Magazine’s Man of the Year for that year). The fear of a German invasion was a big fear at the time, and a news story about any invasion would automatically bring up thoughts of the Nazis.

Time's "Man of the Year" covers looked different back in 1939. That's Hitler playing the pipe organ. 

The War of the Worlds was also a very popular book at the time (it still is, it’s one of the few books that has never gone out of print since it was first published in 1898). This is important because H.G Wells was a big author. It would be like if a TV program today did a “live report” on the “breaking news” of the final battle between Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort, and the news reporting the resulting mass panic as people fled fearing dark wizards.

So how did the idea of this panic start?

First of all, let’s talk about something called “yellow journalism.” Yellow journalism is when a news source publishes something with little or no research, fact checking, or presenting something that should be a small news story as a major event.  

I know, such an idea as news reporting news in anything less than the most factual in details seems strange and alien today.

It’s true that lots of newspapers had their front pages plastered with the story of the War of the Worlds panic. They’re pretty much all classic examples of yellow journalism. It was reported that 1.7 million people believed that it was true that the US was being invaded by aliens from Mars, and that an additional 1.2 million people were “genuinely frightened” by the broadcast. Where did those numbers come from? Out of thin air. They needed numbers, so they made them up.

They did sell a lot of newspapers though.

Nobody knows how many people may or may not have believed that aliens were actually invading, but the number of people who have provably done anything other than call the authorities for more information is… 1. 

Afraid that the martians were coming, he spent his money for new shoes to get out of town. He was also reimbursed by the radio station for the cost of a new pair of shoes.

All the other stories came up after the fact, as people were reading about the reported panic in the newspapers, and spread them around, probably having a good laugh about  the whole thing both because it was a well known story at the time, and that the radio station did state in the program several times that it was a radio adaption of H.G. Well's The War of the Worlds

For the record, the newspapers from 31 October 1938 with the front page news on the "panic" sell for about $100 US now. So really, it's still making money. 

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