In the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was inundated by feedback from people furious about what they saw as deceitful media content.
“I hope you will lawfully prevent such broadcasts in the future and, if possible, severely discipline all participants,” read one letter. Another accused the communications outlet in question of exercising “bad taste” and being “dangerous”. Yet another asked the FCC to avoid a repeat of a “very grave and serious situation.”
Meanwhile, a newspaper headline put the word “fake” in huge letters, and talked how about how this particular news put an unnecessary scare into the nation.
Fake news? This Halloween marks the 80th anniversary of one of the biggest ever examples.
On October 30, 1938, across the CBS radio network, the Mercury Theater did a radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. And some inattentive listeners freaked out.
The broadcast alternated typical Sunday evening radio programming with a series of “news bulletins”: there were explosions on Mars, unusual objects were falling from the sky, Martians were emerging from their vessel in New Jersey, they’re invading and attacking around the world, they’re releasing poisonous smoke in New York City, etc. In the end, the Martians die as result of exposure to earthly germs, but not before causing massive damage.
Orson Welles, 23 at the time, directed and narrated the production. This was three years before he co-wrote and directed his first movie, Citizen Kane. Many listeners missed the notices about the Halloween eve broadcast being fictional. They assumed the Martian attack was for real and freaked.
That aspect of the radio event has tended to get the most attention. A. Brad Schwartz went far deeper in his 2015 book called Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News.
In an excerpt published in Salon, he noted that the broadcast created a sort of moral panic. Many critics were concerned about its influence, and that of other suspenseful radio shows, on the minds of children.
Schwartz writes that such worries occur when a society perceives a threat to its established value system. “Usually, that threat is a new behavior or technology believed to corrupt the young. Society then rushes to defend itself in a disorganized, disproportionate and often hysterical manner.”
He says that in the 1930s some parent-teacher associations felt that certain kids’ shows, including mysteries and crime shows, were prompting youth to commit crimes themselves. Even the radio show adapted from the Little Orphan Annie comic strip was deemed to be dangerous. Schwartz says that some people felt the show’s cliffhangers, where the fate of Annie and her dog Sandy would be unknown until the next episode, could cause unnatural over-stimulation.
After The War of the Worlds production, one person who wrote the FCC said that “Children insist on listening to that variety of shock and are being developed into a race of morons.”
“Behind this outrage,” writes Schwartz, “lay a generation gap. As the theatre of the mind, radio particularly fascinated young imaginations. Parents who grew up in the age of print struggled to understand its appeal.”
Has anything changed?
We have similar debates today about the impact of video games like Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto, slasher movies, and all manners of explicit TV and online content. They’re as popular as ever. The #1 movie at the box office this Halloween is…horror movie Halloween.
There has been much research on whether such media desensitize us, or prime us for aggressive or other anti-social behaviour. Some studies show a link, others don’t.
In her research, Dr. Cheryl Olson, author of Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games, even found that these games can be beneficial in a way. Children, she said, “are learning to delay gratification, persist, solve problems, cope with frustration and blow off steam.”
Young minds can be impressionable. They always have been. Yet as Schwartz writes, “The belief that movies, video games and other media are a dangerous, corrupting influence is not a new thing,” he writes. “Americans once felt the same way about Little Orphan Annie.”
Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxman, connect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at foxmancommunications.com. I would love to hear from you. More articles like this coming, with original posts every week about communications, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, etc., etc.
Oct. 31, 2018