A skeptical look at the panic that might have been.
Just as literature was created the day a boy cried wolf when there was no wolf, the birth of fake news in the United States may have been Oct. 30, 1938, when a rising young radio celebrity cried Martian when there was no Martian. His name, of course, was Orson Welles (1915-1985), and he unleashed a radio production that convinced a number of people that space invaders had arrived in tiny Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, and were proceeding to burn a path of destruction along the East Coast that would shame Gen. Sherman. Listeners throughout the country fled their homes in terror—or did they? That’s the question raised in this book by Schwartz, who persuasively argues that Martian hysteria was largely a media invention. Drawing on both ratings and hundreds of archived original letters from listeners (both pro and con) addressed to the FCC and CBS, Schwartz easily dismantles the idea that Welles alarmed the nation, as most people were tuned to another station. Among actual listeners, many knew the program was fiction, either because they heard it announced as such at the beginning or because they saw through it—and loved it. Relatively few people lost their grips on reality, but the press saw them as the majority and never bothered to check if they actually were. “No journalist ever made a serious attempt to figure out how much of the country had even heard the broadcast,” writes the author, “much less how many in its audience were frightened.” Myth became hardened into fact by a popular academic study, which Schwartz reveals was largely shaped to fit an unexamined hypothesis. The author credibly shows that the problem wasn’t the fake broadcast but the fake interpretation—“a newspaper exaggeration born of haste and misunderstanding”—that chilled creative expression. Advertisers, fearful of offending audiences, wanted shows that pandered to the lowest common denominator. Welles’ first great triumph also effectively killed the golden age of radio.
An entertaining assessment of a watershed moment in American life and its lasting effect on popular culture.