Monday, July 17, 2017

Hysteria or panic?

Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles's War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News by A. Brad Schwartz compels the reader to run to the nearest dictionary for the definitions of both panic and hysteria, for Schwartz again and again makes the point that what resulted from the famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938 was not panic, but hysteria. Never mind that he sometimes uses the word panic himself.

My nearest dictionary, the Oxford American, defines panic as "sudden terror, wild infectious fear" and hysteria as "wild uncontrollable emotion or excitement." So, yes, although both definitions use the word wild, terror and fear sound much more severe than emotion and excitement. That seems to be Schwartz's point, that reaction to the broadcast was not as severe as popularly held.

Relatively few people actually tuned in to the Mercury Theatre on the Air that night. It drew less than 4 percent of the radio audience, which was still about four million listeners. (A later estimate makes that 2 percent.) The largest audience by far listened to The Chase & Sanborn Hour featuring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Yet just as today people tend to channel surf during commercial breaks, so radio listeners sometimes turned their dials to other stations during commercials or musical numbers. These may have been the people most likely to believe something serious was going on. Many such people even missed the part about aliens from Mars. They thought this apparent news report was about human invaders. Adding to the problem was that the first act of the production was closer to 40 minutes long than the usual 30, meaning that there was no break for station identification at the usual point. And the show did not have any sponsors, so there were no commercial breaks.

Amazingly radio broadcasters of that day considered it unethical to broadcast recordings of actual speeches and other news events. Instead they would recreate these events using actors and sound effects. So radio personnel were very skilled at making the phony sound like the real thing, which is what the War of the Worlds script called for.

Although Schwartz himself puts most of the focus of his book on Orson Welles, he points out that Welles was not as responsible for the program as he later claimed and as is widely believed. John Houseman directed the production, which was written by Howard Koch. Welles was the star, but he was a busy young man at that time and couldn't even find time to attend the rehearsal. Only later, after it was clear there would be no legal repercussions, did Welles claim he was the driving force behind the production.

Hundreds of people who heard the broadcast that night wrote letters, whether to CBS, the FCC, newspapers, Welles himself or some other party, stating their reactions. Schwartz gained access to the letters and uses them extensively. Sometimes it seems chapters are little more than quotes from these letters strung together. Yet it is clear from at least some of them that for some listeners that night there was much more terror and fear than emotion and excitement.

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