PBS broadcast a new documentary about the Hallowe’en radio broadcast 75 years ago of The War of the Worlds. H.G.Wells wrote a good story, and the story of Orson Welles’ radio adaptation is a good story also.
Was there really a nationwide panic? Were people really that gullible, conditioned by experience to believe an alleged “news bulletin” when there were so many obvious indications that it was a dramatization?
Was it a cruel hoax, or an artistic endeavour that was so convincing that it took on a life of its own?
According to the documentary, people sincerely reported eye-witness accounts that matched the details of the script… they saw the Martians and smelled the black gas. In their panic, imagination overtook common sense and actual physical senses.
So I wonder … what is the power of language… thought, read, spoken, heard, in any format or any medium… to deceive us, distort our sensory perception, and inhibit rational response. With film and television so brilliantly capable of special effects, auditory and digital manipulation… with it so ubiquitous and so easy to replicate and pass on… who and what can we trust.
Would I have been one of the people who believed and panicked, or would I have had the nerve to say, “Hey, it sounds pretty good, but this is the time the radio broadcasts those outlandish stories.It’s late. I’ll see you in the morning.” Would you?
I watched the news footage of the Kennedy assassination and the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald. I saw the moon landing and the Challenger explosion. I saw film coverage of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the stand-off with the tank in Tiananmen Square. On 9/11 I watched “in real-time” as the second plane crashed into the tower. I saw the big wave as the tsunami hit the coastline of Japan. I have seen footage of riots and demonstrations and battles around the world. If I were to turn on the television right now, there would doubtless be more horrific and “unbelievable” material.
These were all true. So if a television broadcast were to simulate a catastrophic event in order to manipulate belief, would I be able to resist it?
We refer to the information highway and get our information from the Internet, off the web. Are we, like Frodo in the battle with Shelob we saw yesterday, bundled in to a cocoon, senseless and unable to escape. What happens when we cannot discern the difference between lack of information, valid information, misinformation, and disinformation.
This is scary, really scary!
Read these two articles, one from Slate, the other from the Huffington Post.
And the original broadcast is here as well…Wells. Welles. Well done!