Ultimate Fake News in 1938 Papers? On Welles’ “War of the Worlds” Broadcast

Orson Welles during (or rehearsing for) the 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds. At 23 years of age, he co-wrote the brilliant adaptation from H. G. Wells’ novel.

By Vicki Priest (any opinions are her own)

Having no occasion to re-familiarize myself with the panicked results of the 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast that I was taught in school decades ago, I had no idea (until recently) that the reported “panic” has lately been claimed to be a fabrication.  History.com still covers the subject as I recall learning about it–that many people tuned-in to the (brilliant) program late because of a different station’s popular program, and thought the “news” announcements of a Martian invasion in the radio play were real.  There had never been an audio play like it before and people just heard what sounded like a regular news story, albeit a very disturbing one.  The broadcast was on October 30th, in time for Halloween.  So are the editors at History.com wrong (the article was last updated in June 2019)?

Not having lived through that time, it would be near impossible to completely assess the veracity of either the “traditional” or the revisionist view of “the panic.”  However, the issue points to the need to use a variety of sources when doing historical research and, further, considering them with a detective’s eye.  Even so, if many newspapers reported the phenomenon–which a great many did–why would someone question the basic validity of it (it was reported in our local paper that the Federal Communications Commission chairman was going to look into the broadcast right away, as it caused “general panic and fear”; Times Herald, October 31, 1938, page 1)?  We all know that “you can’t believe everything you read in the newspapers,” but would all those papers be that deceptive?  And certainly there are other contemporary sources to help anyone interested enough understand what people went through, and the magnitude of the event.

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