Could 'War of the Worlds' broadcast still happen today?
Eighty years ago today, many radio listeners tuning in late to the popular CBS broadcast, The Mercury Theatre on the Air, thought it had been interrupted by breaking news bulletin.
What sounded like a normal evening radio broadcast of dance music was interrupted by reports of sightings of odd explosions on Mars.
More music, and then a seemingly unrelated story about an unusual object falling on a farm in Grover’s Mill, N.J.
Music returned, only to be interrupted by a live report from Grover’s Mill, where police officials and onlookers had surrounded the strange cylindrical object, which soon produced Martians brandishing a heat-ray, which cut off the panicked reporter at the scene.
The news bulletins became more and more alarming as more Martian war machines appeared around the world, releasing clouds of poisonous smoke on New York City.
It wasn’t until 30 minutes into the broadcast that the show broke into a regular commercial, but by then panic was spreading among those who didn’t realize it was a drama.
After the break, a survivor describes the aftermath of the invasion, and the discovery that the Martians had been defeated by terrestrial bacteria.
There was an uproar over the panic caused by the realism of the broadcast, and calls for sanctions by the Federal Communication Commission, but Orson Welles had secured his career as a director and actor.
Today, responsible reporters who produce accurate news stories that don’t support readers’ or viewers’ biases find themselves accused of producing “fake news.” Meanwhile, actual fake news that supports those biases is quickly spread over social media.
Welles and the news people of his day would be dumbfounded by the number of news sources feeding today’s 24-hour news cycle, and we like to think the variety of sources would make another incident like his 1938 broadcast impossible.
But with today’s video editing and computer-generated image capabilities, we need to stay on our guard.