cover image 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

A. Brad Schwartz. Hill and Wang, $30 (416p) ISBN 978-0-80903-161-0

In the days after the War of the Worlds national radio broadcast in October 1938, thousands of Americans sent angry letters to the FCC, CBS, Orson Welles, and his Mercury Theatre. This new study of War of the Worlds dutifully examines those complaint letters and reveals what really happened in America during that chaotic hour-long broadcast. Schwartz’s debut book sets the scene perfectly and dispels several myths about any “panic” over a Martian invasion in New Jersey. Schwartz gives proper credit to the supporting cast of actors, writers, and composers who made the radio program into an international sensation. He lays out a balanced case—recognizing that some Americans did consider War of the Worlds an actual news report and were deeply frightened by it, but that most treated it as a scary prank or a betrayal of the radio’s supposed objectivity. The book rightly emphasizes the enormous power mass media wields over the emotions and politics of the country. Welles’s Martian landing might not have fooled today’s listeners, but our vulnerability and our appetite for fake news persists. Schwartz’s book is an impeccable account of the most famous radio show in history, a fascinating biography of Orson Welles, and a vital lesson about the responsibility of the media. Agent: Ross Harris, Stuart Krichevsky Agency. (May)