“This the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
— The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
When I was in college, I had the good fortune to take a couple of journalism classes under an instructor who was an old school newspaper hound. He talked about the power of mass communication and the responsibility of those who wield that power. To demonstrate his point, he told us a story about when he was a boy and the event that changed his life. At the age of 5, on a Sunday evening, his family was huddled around the radio as they often did, listening to popular comedian/ventriloquist Edward Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy. And like so many people today, they tended to channel surf during the commercials. During this channel surfing, they encountered a program of dance music that was quickly interrupted with news of an invasion force sweeping through the Eastern seaboard. The instructor explained how his father stood out on the front porch of their home all night, armed with a shotgun, and how the papers the next day told a very different story. That was the day my instructor found his professional calling, determined to be a crusader for the truth. It was also the day he became enamored with the power of communication.
My instructor’s story is but one minor story of what happened the night of October 30, 1938. The really juicy variations on this are extreme. There are many reports of mass exodus evacuations, strandings, shootings, and other happenings associated with the idea of a wide spread panic. In the days and months that followed, the story took shape. In the years that followed, that story took on a life of its own, one that Orson Welles himself continued to perpetuate decades after apologizing and claiming he “didn’t know.”
This book is what a history book should be. It punctures the myths, dissects them, explains them, and makes them relatable. It discusses what the radio industry and its programming were like in the 1930s. It discusses how radio relied upon live broadcasts to ensure its authenticity, while dramatizing news when the recordings later wouldn’t do. It talks about the events that led to shaping radio the way it was, from the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby to the Nuremberg rallies to actual emergency situations such as earthquakes and floods. And it discusses how, in an effort to “serve the public trust,” unsponsored programming gave rise to higher cultured programming such as the Mercury Radio Theater on the Air, designed to elevate the audience above the mundane in the presumption that they were intelligent.
The author goes into great detail over what made “The War of the Worlds” broadcast work, how it was developed, and how this was essentially the next step in the kinds of work Orson Welles was already doing in the attempt to make a name for himself.
And it discusses the fallout. This is the bulk of the book, and it’s quite possibly the most balanced and intriguing part of it. As a direct result of this single broadcast, the nation faced a Constitutional crisis that might very well have upended the 1st Amendment. The Martians may not have been real, but the panic was, and it was not quite what people think. The invaders arrived after the broadcast was over, and the effects of that invasion are still shaping our lives today, both in the form of United States military policies and especially in the domain of advertising and marketing research. This book leaves no stone unturned, drawing the lines all the way into the recent past to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear — which took place on the anniversary of “The War of the Worlds” broadcast — and into the present day.
If you’ve never heard the original radio broadcast, I truly recommend it. If you’re interested in the story behind the story and its effects, this book is top-notch, and I can’t recommend it enough. I’ve been a fan of this broadcast and the various other adaptations of the novel since I was a kid, as well as a fan of golden age radio and of the great Orson Welles himself. While I’ve learned a lot over the years about each of these subjects and how they relate, this book dropped bomb after bomb and left me gobsmacked. To say I was schooled is understatement. And along the way, I was fascinated and entertained, and I learned to see the world around me in a completely different perspective. What more can you possibly ask of a book?