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Panic in the streets? How Orson Welles' 1938 "War of the Worlds" broadcast really went down

Orson Welles' 1938 broadcast of "War of the Worlds" certainly caused a stir, but newspapers of the time seem to have exaggerated that point.
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This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the century's great creative minds: Orson Welles.

Director, actor, and writer, his "Citizen Kane" is widely regarded as the greatest film ever made.

And his 1938 Halloween Eve radio broadcast of "The War of the Worlds" was an early lesson in the power of viral media.

Perhaps you’ve heard the stories. Panic in the streets, families jumping into their cars and fleeing town, mass hysteria.

Author and Orson Welles historian Brad Schwartz suggests that that’s not the whole story.

In his book, Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News, Schwartz explains that the degree to which the public was terrified by the broadcast was greatly exaggerated by the news media.

“Because the show made headlines the next day, because it became this national event, a lot of people felt the need to write in describing their experiences,” he says.

According to Schwartz, a small percentage of those letters were from people who were genuinely scared by the broadcast. “But in the larger sense,” he says, “most people who heard the show were not frightened.”

The majority of people wrote to Welles and to the FCC to talk about the fact that they hadn’t been frightened and to reveal larger fears they had about what this incident said about the power of media.

Schwartz tells us that most people expressed concern surrounding the implications of someone using the medium to do something that sounds realistic, but is not.

“That’s something that they dealt with then, something that we’re still dealing with today,” Schwartz says.

The 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast is still an iconic point in the history of radio, and Schwartz says that without it and the following attention from the news, Orson Welles may not have become the international celebrity and Hollywood mastermind we remember.

“The hysteria existed but it was smaller than people tend to think,” he says. “And the larger story, the headlines and kind of the narrative of the nationwide mass panic, that was fake news of a much larger and more serious kind.”

Brad Schwartz will be one of the moderators at the upcoming University of Michigan symposium celebrating the centenary of filmmaker and actor Orson Welles, June 8-10 at the Hatcher Graduate Library on the University of Michigan campus.

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