The Scary Tale of the Birth of Fake News

On Halloween, 80 years ago, Orson Welles awoke to a media frenzy after his infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, to which it became perhaps the most notorious event in American broadcast history.  Reputedly, listeners thought the broadcast was an actual martian invasion and so they called the police, newspapers, radio stations, and that led journalists to believe it caused over a million of people to panic across the country.

War of the Worlds 1938 broadcast…

Just one problem though – it really didn’t cause that much of a panic – and the blame lies upon America’s newspapers. During the depression, radio was taking away advertising revenue from newspapers, and this was an opportunity for print 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… the myth persists because it so perfectly captures our unease with the media’s power over our lives… we retell the story because we need a cautionary tale about the power of media. Just as radio was the new medium of the 1930s, opening up exciting new channels of communication, today the Internet provides us with both the promise of a dynamic communicative future and dystopian fears of a new form of mind control; lost privacy; and attacks from scary, mysterious forces. This is the fear that animates our fantasy of panicked hordes—both then and now.”

“At the press conference the morning after the show, (23 year old) Welles repeatedly denied that he had ever intended to deceive his audience. But hardly anyone, then or since, has ever taken him at his word. His performance, captured by newsreel cameras, seems too remorseful and contrite, his words chosen much too carefully. Instead of ending his career, War of the Worlds catapulted Welles to Hollywood, where he would soon make Citizen Kane. Given the immense benefit Welles reaped from the broadcast, many have found it hard to believe that he harbored any regrets about his sudden celebrity.”

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