“The most dangerous untruths are truths moderately distorted.”- Georg Christoph Lichtenberg
The airwaves have been manipulating and using their listeners for many years. The ability to confuse mass audiences was never more obvious than on October 30, 1938 at 8:00 p.m. when one of the most infamous “mistakes” in the history of the media occurred. Before the era of T.V., people sat in front of their radios and listened to music, news reports, plays and many other programs for entertainment and in that year, the most popular radio program was the “Chase and Sanborn Hour” which aired on Sunday evenings at 8 p.m. The star of the show was ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy.
Unfortunately for the Mercury group, headed by dramatist Orson Welles, their show, “Mercury Theatre on the Air,” aired on another station at the very same time. Welles tried to think of ways to increase his audience, hoping to take away listeners from the “Chase and Sanborn Hour.” So on that day in October on that particular evening Mr. Welles developed an adaptation of the science fiction novel “The War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells. In adapting this particular book for a radio play, Welles, ingeniously made a very important change: he directed and manipulated the play to be performed entirely like a legitimate news broadcast about an invasion from Mars, this way he felt it would heighten the dramatic event of the story.
As the story began to unravel, dance music was interrupted many times by fake news bulletins reporting that a “huge flaming object” had dropped on a farm near Grovers Mill, New Jersey. As the audience listened and sat on the edge of their seats, actors playing news announcers, officials and other roles people one would expect to hear in a news report, described the landing of an invasion force from Mars and the destruction of the United States. The script specifically attempted to make the interviews and announcement sound real and occurring right at that moment hence one half hour Mr. Welles had the attention of thousands of listeners.
This broadcast did contain a number of explanations to let the audience know that it was all a radio play, but if a part of the audience missed the brief explanation at the beginning, the next one didn’t arrive until 40 minutes into the program.
During the broadcast, an actor in a studio, who was playing a newscaster in the field, described the emergence of one of the aliens from its spacecraft. “Good heavens, something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake, now it’s another one, and another. They look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing’s body. It’s large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather. But that face. It…it’s indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate….The thing is raising up. The crowd falls back. They’ve seen enough. This is the most extraordinary experience. I can’t find words. I’m pulling this microphone with me as I talk. I’ll have to stop the description until I’ve taken a new position. Hold on, will you please, I’ll be back in a minute.”
“A humped shape is rising out of the pit. I can make out a small beam of light against a mirror. What’s that? There’s a jet of flame springing from the mirror, and it leaps right at the advancing men. It strikes them head on! Good Lord, they’re turning into flame! Now the whole field’s caught fire. The woods . . . the barns . . . the gas tanks of automobiles . . it’s spreading everywhere. It’s coming this way. About twenty yards to my right… “Then silence. A few minutes later, an announcer interrupts,
“Ladies and gentlemen, I have just been handed a message that came in from Grovers Mill by telephone. Just one moment please. At least forty people, including six state troopers, lie dead in a field east of the village of Grovers Mill, their bodies burned and distorted beyond all possible recognition.”
By this time the audience is in disbelief and shock and yet it only gets worse, they are told that “the state militia is mobilizing, with seven thousand men, and surrounding the metal object”. Unfortunately they too are obliterated by the “heat ray.” The “Secretary of the Interior,” who sounds like President Franklin Roosevelt (purposely), addresses the nation.
Citizens of the nation: I shall not try to conceal the gravity of the situation that confronts the country, nor the concern of your government in protecting the lives and property of its people. . . . we must continue the performance of our duties each and every one of us, so that we may confront this destructive adversary with a nation united, courageous, and consecrated to the preservation of human supremacy on this earth.
The radio reports that the U.S. Army is unavailable. The announcer declared that New York City was being evacuated. The program continues, but many radio listeners are already panicked.
While the audience listed to this simulation of a news broadcast, created with voice acting and sound effects, a portion of the listeners believed that it was hearing an real news account of an invasion from Mars.
People panicked when they learned of the Martians’ ferocious and unstoppable attack on Earth. All across the United States, listeners reacted. Thousands of people called radio stations, the police and newspapers. In the New England area many loaded their cars and fled their homes. People went to churches to pray, others improvised gas masks. Miscarriages and early births were reported. Deaths, too, were reported but never confirmed. Many people were hysterical. They thought the end was near.. They were basically, without knowing it, acting out the role of the panic-stricken public that actually belonged in a radio play. People were stuck in a type of virtual world in which fiction was confused for fact.
In a predictive column, in the New York Tribune, Dorothy Thompson foretold that the broadcast showed the way politicians could use the power of mass communications to create illusions to manipulate the public.
“All unwittingly, Mr. Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater of the Air have made one of the most fascinating and important demonstrations of all time,” she wrote. “They have proved that a few effective voices, accompanied by sound effects, can convince masses of people of a totally unreasonable, completely fantastic proposition as to create a nation-wide panic. They have demonstrated more potently than any argument, demonstrated beyond a question of a doubt, the appalling dangers and enormous effectiveness of popular and theatrical demagoguery….
“Hitler managed to scare all of Europe to its knees a month ago, but he at least had an army and an air force to back up his shrieking words but Mr. Welles scared thousands into demoralization with nothing at all.”
This “invasion from Mars”, fakery was totally intentional; it was the work of producers who had concluded they could create a fictional news report. There was a shocked reaction from the public and those involved became objects of public anger therefore an effort was made to ensure that such manipulations wouldn’t recur.
But in 1990, it did happen again. Audiences around the world discovered that they were taken in by the two performers (Milli Vanilli) who faked their own talent lip-syncing, to create the impression they were singing. What millions of fans had believed were two talented singers was actually two untalented people who provided the visuals, while vocalists provided the audio.
Like the War of the Worlds fiasco, the stunned audience was angry . But unlike the experience of 1938, the social context was different because these types of lies had become commonplace, and attempts to use them to trick the public were the rule rather than the exception and this time, a global culture had developed, which meant that tens of millions of people around the world were drawn into the same illusion.
One might say that War of the Worlds was the foreshadow of the age of lies that were yet to come. The Milli Vanilli scandal served a pathway or a symbolic marker, showing that we now live in a world of confusion in which our tendency to mistake fakes for what they imitate or tell us has become the sign of the times. In other words fiction is fact!
We live in a time in which the ability to create deceptive situations, especially for television and radio, has become crucial to power and the inability to see through these lies deceptions has become a form of powerlessness. If we allow ourselves be taken in by the many deceptions of politics, news, radio and advertising we are doomed, like the gullible radio audience in 1938. We cannot play a role in listening to these liars and money-making shows more popular by believing what they say.
The power of radio had fooled the listeners. They had become accustomed to believing everything they heard on the radio, without questioning it. They had, in 1938, learned the hard way not to believe everything they hear or read. Unfortunately what they believed then has not changed we are constantly being blindsided by the media and told lies on an ongoing basis and the audience continues to believe it. The worst part of it is we are willing victims and believe because it is in print or on the airwaves it is the truth.