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Space the Nation: How 'The War of the Worlds' changed the world

Contributed by
Jun 12, 2018

Welcome to “That Time When,” an occasional Space the Nation feature exploring the real-world political impact of a specific piece of genre fiction.

That time when: The "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast set the precedent for how the government handles “fake news.”

Why it matters: Faced with a crisis over how to help the American public tell fact from fiction, the Federal Communications Commission decided that “while it is regrettable that the broadcast alarmed a substantial number of people, there appeared to be no likelihood of a repetition of the incident and no occasion for action.” The decision to refrain from regulating content on the basis of whether it misrepresented reality helped create the media ecology that has birthed both The Onion and Alex Jones.

What happened: You may already be familiar with the basic outlines of this story. It was October 30, 1938, and the country was grappling with rising foreign tensions in Europe and domestic economic upheaval. (Hmmm.) The ambient eeriness of the approaching Halloween holiday may have goosed people’s susceptibility to a radio play about Martians invading the earth even more. And then there was the fact that a large chunk of the audience apparently stumbled upon the program a few minutes in, missing the introduction by the show’s host and the clear announcement, “The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations present Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air in The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells."

In any case, as the play unfolded in segments that were presented as newscasts, some people panicked; the exact size and severity of the “mass hysteria” reaction has probably been exaggerated over the years. There is no documentary evidence that folks flooded the streets, no record of an uptick in calls to the police or military. As one media historian observed, contemporary newspaper reports about the incident can’t been entirely trusted, as written-word institutions regarded radio as an upstart medium untethered by the norms and traditions of “real journalism.” (And yes, this does sound familiar.) Thus, newspapers had an incentive to portray the stunt broadcast as wildly irresponsible — all the better to coax readers into not giving up their subscriptions just yet.

It is undoubtedly true that the Welles’ experiment in radio-verite gave lots of people feelings, and people acted on those feelings in the time-honored American tradition of complaining to the government. The Federal Communications Commission fielded 372 letters, calls, and telegrams about the broadcast. It was the biggest controversy the agency had faced (that said, the FCC had only been existence for four years). Senators and congressmen weighed in. Newspaper editorial pages ran columns and reader mail. It was the kind of polarizing cultural event that we’re used to seeing on cable news today, covered just as breathlessly. When the head of the FCC gave a speech about the issue two weeks later at a luncheon of the National Association of Broadcasters, all the major radio networks broke into their programming to carry the speech live.

That speech gave everyone an early clue that the FCC was at a bit of a loss on what to do. He all but gave away their eventual decision, which was a punt. The commissioner told the association that “the best guidance on program standards would come from the public opinion of the listeners, rather than the broadcasters or the FCC itself.” And what did the public actually think?

That’s difficult to say, of course. Though the FCC received 372 complaints about "The War of the Worlds," it also received 255 “letters and petitions” in favor of Welles' radio play — and announced that, if you counted the multiple signatures on the petitions, the number of individuals weighing in supportive of the broadcast was 355. According to one New York Daily News editorial, letters to the paper were split about the same: one half “mad at the people who were hoaxed into taking the broadcast seriously” and “the other half were mad at Orson Welles” for having hoaxed them.

The commission probably could have declared it had public support no matter what direction it decided — if it had decided anything specifically. The commission’s ultimate statement was neither an expression of respect for freedom of the press nor a call for self-regulation. The FCC simply assumed that they wouldn’t have to deal with anything quite like it ever again, a non-decision-as-precedent that later administrations — when faced something like it — kept pushing into the realm of “broadcaster discretion.” By 1991, when the FCC finally got around to an official ruling on how to handle “hoaxes,” "The War of the Worlds" was cited by a commissioner not as an example of a consumer fraud properly under FCC purview but rather the exact kind of programming consumers want. “We must therefore must take care that any rule on hoaxes not prevent the broadcast of programs such as Orson Welles’ 'War of the Worlds' which is widely recognized as a classic of American radio.”

This latitude granted broadcasters is part of what has made American pop culture so vibrant, of course. One could argue that the porous nature of what Americans consider “news” is what gives power to every “found footage” horror movie and all the different iterations of the late night comedy “desk piece.” It is also what allowed Russian hackers to easily manipulate the emotions of Facebook partisans.

I have no easy answers about the problem of censorship versus public safety. I do wonder what might have happened if the FCC hadn’t addressed the Welles issue so close to considering another broadcast controversy — one not nearly as sexy and much further removed from public debate. It was over the use of the word “flash.” As in, “news flash.” A week after "The War of the Worlds," the FCC held an already-scheduled “summit” on the issue, calling the heads of all the major networks to Washington discuss the abuse of that term, as well as “bulletin.”

The FCC called the meeting because the group had found that “the practice of using ‘flash,’ as well as ‘bulletin,’ is overworked and results in misleading the public. It is hoped and believed that a discussion on this subject may lead to a clearer differentiation between bonafide news matter of first rank importance and that which is of only ordinary importance or which finds place in dramatics or advertising.”

Imagine a world in which the FCC could crack down on the use of the “flash” and “bulletin” and, I would assume, “breaking” and “alert!" Imagine the calm that might bring to our phones… and imagine how that might allow for a way of policing hoaxes without tampering with their content. But mostly, imagine what it would do for our phones.