The story goes that when H.G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds was turned into a radio play and broadcast by Orson Welles in 1938, millions of people around the country heard the altered opening line “Martians have invaded New Jersey!” and freaked out. In fact, we’ve long been told that it started “a panic” that night because many people had never heard a radio play and believed it was the news and that the alien invasion was true. It has even been reported that people ran from their homes in fear, caused stampedes, and even committed suicide!
Say what you want about New Jersey, but there was no great panic over it being invaded by extraterrestrials nearly 85 years ago.
We’ll grant you that it’s a believable story. In the radio era, with no way to see what was happening, some people were very likely freaked out. But did they panic, run from their homes, and cause a national hysteria?
Well, there’s no evidence of it if they did.
Numbers are thrown around with abandon when it comes to listeners, and there are some estimates that around 12 million people were listening to Welles’ broadcast that night. And even if 1 in every 12 people believed it, 1 million people freaking out would be a big deal, right? The newspapers reported it, but it’s quite likely that it belongs in that (increasingly overused) category of “fake news.”
Yet even Smithsonian Magazine, which can often be trusted to research the accuracy of historical events, propagated the myth of the panic, saying of Welles:
“He’d heard reports of mass stampedes, of suicides, and of angered listeners threatening to shoot him on sight. ‘If I’d planned to wreck my career,’ he told several people at the time, ‘I couldn’t have gone about it better.’ With his livelihood (and possibly even his freedom) on the line, Welles went before dozens of reporters, photographers, and newsreel cameramen at a hastily arranged press conference in the CBS building. Each journalist asked him some variation of the same basic question: Had he intended, or did he at all anticipate, that War of the Worlds would throw its audience into panic?”
The only proof offered up is some old script drafts from the days when Welles and his colleagues were trying to turn the novel into a play. There are links to newspapers, but no interrogation of the reporting and whether it could be trusted or backed up. And while the magazine does have a fascinating story on how the play came to be, Slate has poked holes in the rest of the story.
Most important is the lack of a large enough audience to cause anything but a slight kerfuffle. Slate says:
“There’s only one problem: The supposed panic was so tiny as to be practically immeasurable on the night of the broadcast. Despite repeated assertions to the contrary in the PBS and NPR programs, almost nobody was fooled by Welles’ broadcast.“
It turns out that a poll taken that night showed that 98% of 5000 surveyed households were listening to something else, or nothing at all, on Oct. 30, 1938. “Welles’ program was scheduled against one of the most popular national programs at the time—ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s Chase and Sanborn Hour, a comedy-variety show,” Slate notes. And to top it off “several important CBS affiliates (including Boston’s WEEI) pre-empted Welles’ broadcast in favor of local commercial programming.”
Even if people were turning the dial during musical interludes, as some have claimed, we have no way of reliably extrapolating that to 12 million people. No death has even been attributed to listening to the play and reports of people being treated for panic remain unsubstantiated.
So what’s the deal? It’s likely that newspapers weren’t so happy about radio cutting into their readership base. Slate put one final nail in the coffin, noting “Radio had siphoned off advertising revenue from print during the Depression, badly damaging the newspaper industry. So the papers seized the opportunity presented by Welles’ program to discredit radio as a source of news. The newspaper industry sensationalized the panic to prove to advertisers, and regulators, that radio management was irresponsible and not to be trusted.”
Over time, the myth grew and grew and old fake news was turned into historical evidence. But that still can’t make it true. – WTF Fun Fact