Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles's War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News

Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles's War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News

by A. Brad Schwartz


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780809031610
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 05/05/2015
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

A. Brad Schwartz co-wrote an episode of the award-winning PBS series American Experience on the War of the Worlds broadcast, based in part on research for his senior thesis at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He lives in Ann Arbor.

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Broadcast Hysteria

Orson Welle's War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News

By A. Brad Schwartz

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2015 A. Brad Schwartz
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8090-3163-4


"Journalism and Showmanship"

We have spent so much time in the past few weeks listening to "special dispatches from the Press Radio bureau" that it was a relief to hear a few of such bulletins over which one did not have to feel concern.

— Daniel C. Knickerbocker, Jr., of Syracuse, New York, to Orson Welles, October 31, 1938

With the household around him in chaos, Oliver Whateley picked up the phone and called the police in nearby Hopewell, New Jersey. "Colonel Lindbergh's son has been stolen," he said in his pronounced Scottish burr. "Will you please come at once?"

It was the evening of March 1, 1932 — five years after Whateley's employer, Charles Augustus Lindbergh, achieved international celebrity as the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Public fascination with the slim, handsome, and shy "Lone Eagle" had only continued to grow following his historic flight, as the decadence of the Roaring Twenties gave way to the despair of the early thirties. Lindbergh's quiet heroism and storybook family life gave Americans something to look up to as the world seemed to fall apart around them. Now the news that Lindbergh's twenty-month-old son had disappeared from his crib would shock a nation still suffering through the darkest days of the Great Depression.

Within half an hour, newsrooms in three states had gotten word of the crime and begun frantically revising their front pages. A horde of reporters descended on Hopewell, and thousands of curiosity seekers soon followed, stampeding all over the Lindbergh estate and making a general mess of the crime scene. By the next day, when headlines nationwide screamed "LINDBERGH BABY KIDNAPPED," the daily routine of millions of Americans effectively ground to a halt. "Did you ever see such a day?" wrote the prominent humorist and columnist Will Rogers a few days later. "Nobody don't feel like doing anything, taking any interest in anything. The attention of the world is on a little curly haired baby. Until he is found we can't get back to normal."

Unable to focus on anything else, Americans hungered for news of the case. Newspapers, even though they printed countless extra editions, could never keep up. In one day alone, The New York Times answered over three thousand phone calls from people impatient for updates. And so radio, a relatively untried news medium, stepped in to meet the demand. Station WOR, out of Newark, had broken the news first, with a bulletin at 11:35 p.m. on the night of the kidnapping. Meanwhile, CBS and NBC dispatched crews to New Jersey, setting up impromptu studios wherever they could — in a hotel room, above a store, even in a restaurant. Both networks broadcast virtually nonstop for the next 150 hours, passing every bit of news they received on to anxious and eager listeners.

Broadcast journalism had been born twelve years earlier, in a hastily built shack atop a factory in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. From that makeshift studio, station KDKA made history by reporting the results of the presidential election of 1920 as soon as they rolled off the news wires. But in the decade that followed, as the number of "radio homes" in the United States jumped from sixty thousand in 1921 to 16.7 million in 1930, broadcast news grew little beyond covering such special events. The Lindbergh kidnapping saga marked the first period of extended news coverage in the medium's history, the moment when broadcast journalism came of age, and it changed forever the speed at which news traveled. But, as the historian Robert J. Brown has noted, listeners embraced radio news not just because it was fast, but because it was riveting. The powerful intimacy of radio, which broadcasters were just beginning to understand, conveyed the drama and emotion of the "crime of the century" in a way print media never could. When, on May 12, 1932, police found the badly decomposed corpse of an infant and quickly identified it as the missing child, the entire nation mourned as one. Radio had helped create a collective loss of innocence; many would long remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they learned that the Lindbergh baby was dead.

This kind of shared national experience was an entirely new phenomenon. Never before in human history had such a great mass of people, spread over such a wide area, been able to follow events instantaneously. Radio allowed people to be both disparate and together, isolated yet involved; it helped foster a sense of national community at a time when economic and social turmoil threatened to tear the country apart. And no one understood this power better, or harnessed it quite as well, as the newly elected President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

When FDR took the oath of office on March 4, 1933, the American banking system had essentially collapsed. Thirty-eight states had temporarily closed some or all of their banks, forcing people to live off their pocket change or revert to the barter system as they waited to withdraw much-needed cash. Roosevelt had a plan to stabilize the financial system, but it had no chance of success if nothing was done to allay the nation's fears. So, on the night of March 12, he used the radio to make his case to the American people, reassuring sixty million listeners that their savings were indeed safe. In the first of what came to be known as his "fireside chats," the President explained, in simple and direct terms, why this crisis had occurred, how his administration planned to solve it, and what was required of the American people to make the plan work. Above all, he sought to dispel what he called "the phantom of fear," to prevent people from taking hasty or panicky action. "You people must have faith, you must not be stampeded by rumors or guesses," he said. "Let us unite in banishing fear."

No president had ever spoken to the country like this, and the effects were immediate and unprecedented. A flood of telegrams from grateful Americans overwhelmed the White House as soon as the speech ended. Thousands of appreciative letters soon followed, each testifying to renewed faith in the future. Rather than rush to withdraw their savings first thing in the morning, people all over the country lined up to redeposit hoarded cash and gold. Within a month, $1.2 billion had returned to the banking system, and most of the shuttered banks successfully reopened. Roosevelt's address, and the cooperation of a nation, had staved off financial ruin. The radio had made it possible.

Roosevelt's success on the radio is often ascribed to his plain and straightforward speaking style, and to the unique timbre of his voice, which carried well over the airwaves. But that first fireside chat also showed his ability to capitalize on radio's immediacy, its "liveness," to spur listeners to action. In his speech, Roosevelt called directly on the American people to help pull themselves back from economic catastrophe. "We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system," he said; "it is up to you to support and make it work ... Together we cannot fail." Listeners responded to the urgency of his words because urgency is radio's defining characteristic. "What is heard on the air is transitory, as fleeting as time itself, and it therefore seems real," wrote the psychologists Hadley Cantril and Gordon Allport in 1935. By letting Americans hear history being made, radio came to represent the immediate present. Listeners learned to expect that what they heard over the loudspeaker was happening now, in the very moment of transmission. This quality of immediacy made momentous events seem even more pressing for radio listeners.

Throughout that Depression decade, radio delivered news of tragedies and crises from every corner of the continent with ever-increasing speed and intensity. To read about a faraway disaster in a newspaper was, in some sense, to learn about it in safety, far removed from the actual experience of living through it. But the radio made each catastrophe intense and immediate. Listeners, notes Edward D. Miller, actually felt transported by the words of correspondents and commentators as they experienced these tragedies in real time. Occasionally, the commentators themselves became a part of the story. In September 1934, when a devastating fire on the luxury liner SS Morro Castle killed 137 passengers and crew off the coast of New Jersey, radio broke the news first and covered the event throughout the day. As the announcer Tom Burley of WCAP in Asbury Park told his audience that the burned-out vessel was drifting toward shore, he looked out his window and saw the massive wreck sliding out of the mist. WCAP's studios sat right on the Jersey coast, and the Morro Castle was barreling straight toward his building. "My God," Burley blurted on the air. "She's coming in right here!" The ship beached a few hundred yards from where he sat, and in the following days, scores of New Jerseyites came to view the wreck, many of them drawn by the radio.

Other broadcasters stretched the medium's bounds far beyond New Jersey. Through transatlantic telephone wires and shortwave transmissions, radio regularly took Americans to Europe during one of the most tumultuous times in its history. H. V. Kaltenborn, the widely respected "dean of commentators" on CBS, recognized radio's ability to transport listeners and used it to educate his audience, whom he referred to as his "old traveling companions." In mid-1936, Kaltenborn even let Americans listen in to the sounds of actual fighting during the Spanish Civil War, as he hid with a microphone in a haystack near the Battle of Irún. Two years later, when Hitler's Germany annexed Austria, commentators like William L. Shirer and Edward R. Murrow brought eyewitness accounts of the fascist advance straight into millions of American homes.

All of a sudden, no crisis, disaster, or tragedy seemed truly remote anymore. Broadcast news kept Americans better informed about current events than they had ever been before, but it also kept the nation permanently on edge. "Instead of helping to relieve a disturbed people in time of war scares, floods, hurricanes, fires, etc., [radio] has taken the other side and for sensational 'scoops' kindled that fear with announcements breaking up programs," wrote one Connecticut man after the War of the Worlds broadcast. "Why, it is really sickening." Americans wanted to believe that the Atlantic and Pacific could isolate them from any future European war, but radio demonstrated that the world was much smaller than they thought. The very instrument that many turned to for escape and entertainment also helped make a scary decade even scarier.

Yet listeners remained fascinated with the medium's ability to connect them with distant happenings. They saw radio not just as a constant stream of information and entertainment, but as a newfound link to the outside world. Although smaller stations often aired prerecorded music or programming, the networks rejected the practice, because it violated radio's immediacy. "Even though such transcriptions cannot be distinguished by the majority of people from real performances, listeners feel dissatisfied," wrote Cantril and Allport. "The thought of a whirling disk cannot create the sense of participation in actual events that is radio's chief psychological characteristic." Or, as John Royal, vice president of NBC, put it in 1938, "The difference between a live program and a transcribed program is the difference between a pretty girl and her picture."

For this reason, the major broadcast networks banned the use of prerecorded content in the 1930s. Everything listeners heard over NBC and CBS in that decade — every concert, every dramatic program, every comedy show — aired live, because of preference, not technical necessity. The networks argued that the use of recordings in news broadcasts, even more than in musical or dramatic programming, was particularly deceptive — a "sort of hoax ... on the listener" — because audiences had been trained to regard radio shows as live events. By this logic, truth and liveness went hand in hand; one could not exist without the other. A recording, even of a real event, seemed less authentic to 1930s listeners than a live performance of a fictional program.

This posed a serious problem for broadcast journalists, since news rarely occurred within easy reach of a live microphone. Broadcasters often had to get creative in bringing news to their listeners with all the drama and immediacy that their medium allowed, without violating the ban on recordings. For example, when Bruno Richard Hauptmann went on trial for the Lindbergh kidnapping in early 1935, NBC re-enacted each day's testimony on air, with one announcer portraying the witness and the other the questioner. The judge had banned all microphones from his courtroom, so this was as close as listeners could get to "the trial of the century."

One news event, more than any other, challenged the networks' stance on prerecorded content. On May 6, 1937, the German zeppelin LZ 129 Hindenburg completed the first transatlantic trip of its second flying season. It came in for a landing over the Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey, just after 7:00 p.m., before a small crowd of reporters and photographers, as well as one radio correspondent. Herbert Morrison and the sound engineer Charles Nehlsen had come all the way from Chicago to record the landing for station WLS. Because the program's sponsor, American Airlines, offered connecting flights to the Hindenburg, Morrison did his best to make the event sound exciting. He spoke of how tricky landing in the rain would be, and remarked on how the rays of the setting sun sparkled on the Hindenburg's windows "like glittering jewels on a background of black velvet." But his tone betrayed the banality of the situation. Despite the rain, this was shaping up to be just another routine landing.

Then a small jet of fire, shaped like a mushroom, burst from the top of the aircraft just ahead of its tail. In an instant, the highly flammable hydrogen keeping the ship aloft exploded, and the back half of the Hindenburg was ablaze. Fire consumed the entire ship in a mere thirty-four seconds. "It's burst into flame!" Morrison shouted into the mike before he was cut off — the shock wave from the explosion had knocked the needle off the recording disc. But Nehlsen replaced it quickly enough to capture Morrison's voice as it went rapidly from calm to panicked to racked with emotion.

"Get this, Charlie!" Morrison screamed, forcing his way through the crowd to keep his eyes on the sinking dirigible. "It's crashing ... it's crashing terrible! Oh, my! Get out of the way, please! It's burning, bursting into flames and — and it's falling on the mooring mast and all the folks between it. This is terrible, this is one of the worst catastrophes in the world ... It's a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. It's smoke and it's flames now. And the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity, and all the passengers ... I can't talk, ladies and gentlemen. Honest, it's just laying there, a mass of smoking wreckage ... I'm going to step inside where I cannot see it. Charlie, that's terrible ... Listen, folks, I'm gonna have to stop for a minute because I've lost my voice. This is the worst thing I've ever witnessed."

After composing himself, Morrison continued to describe the scene and to interview survivors, stopping frequently to help people get away from the burning wreck. All the while, he kept addressing the audience as if he were broadcasting live, even though no one would hear the record for hours. Word of the disaster first reached radio audiences in New York about eight minutes after the explosion, with a news flash over station WHN. NBC interrupted programming nationwide with an announcement about fifteen minutes later. Meanwhile, Morrison and Nehlsen rushed back to Chicago. Their forty-minute recording of the disaster and its aftermath first aired over WLS at 11:45 a.m. on the day after the explosion.

Despite the newsworthiness of Morrison's recording, the major networks hesitated to put it on the air. They still regarded prerecorded content as inauthentic and potentially deceptive, likely to mislead the audience into thinking they were listening to a live event. But NBC eventually aired an edited version, coast to coast, four hours after it had aired over WLS, breaking their own ban on recordings for the first time. Other stations soon followed suit. Each made sure to state carefully that they were about to air a recording and not a live report. But the piece was so vivid that many listeners still believed they were hearing the event as it happened. The networks' concerns about the use of recordings had, in a sense, been validated.

However, many Americans had already listened in on the Hindenburg explosion hours before Morrison's recording first aired. The networks had another way of making past events seem immediate, a technique widely praised and immensely popular — yet, in many respects, infinitely more deceptive than just playing recordings. The historian Erik Barnouw has noted that, in more recent years, this method would probably be considered criminal, an early version of identity theft. But in the 1930s, it was perfectly acceptable for radio stations to restage news events in a studio, complete with actors and sound effects, and broadcast them for later audiences, as long as the re-creation aired live. Broadcasters justified the practice by clearly stating that these were re-enactments, not recordings, and listeners embraced it as an entertaining way of reporting the news without breaking their connection to live events. The show that pioneered this technique was called The March of Time, and by 1937 it was probably the most popular news program on the air.


Excerpted from Broadcast Hysteria by A. Brad Schwartz. Copyright © 2015 A. Brad Schwartz. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. "Journalism and Showmanship"
2. Winged Mercury
3: Martians of the Mind's Eye
4. "Yours in Terror"
5. "Public Frightener No. 1"
6. "Air Racketeers"
7. "The Public Interest"
8. The Story of the Century
9. "A Matter of Psychology"
10. "The Horror Man"
A Note on Sources


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