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The medium, the message and a fake martian attack

By John Toth / Editor and Publisher

“The medium is the message” is a phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan, meaning that the form of a medium embeds itself in any message, creating a relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived.

The medium shapes the message at will, regardless of its nature, including news.

It could be a popular blog or a cable TV broadcast that takes an event and makes it into something else by leaving out parts of the story or spinning it to suit its editorial leanings.

We’re inundated with it today. Many of us tend to stay within our comfort zones and watch the medium with which we agree, fake, real, or a combination of both. They say things in a way we like, to keep us in their corner. The more of us in that corner, the higher their advertising income.

A famous and historical radio broadcast exemplifies the power of the medium and its message. It happened on Halloween weekend, Sunday, Oct. 30, 1938.

The public was already on the edge as Hitler started making his moves in Europe. War was inevitable. The world was preparing for it, but not this kind of war. Not for “The War of the Worlds.”

It was an episode of the American radio drama anthology series, The Mercury Theatre on the Air, performed as a Halloween show and aired over the Columbia Broadcasting System radio network.

Directed and narrated by actor and future filmmaker Orson Welles, the episode was an adaptation of H. G. Wells’ novel “The War of the Worlds” (1898).

The stage was set. The program went up that night against a popular variety show featuring Edgar Bergen and his wooden dummy, Charlie McCarthy. When the opening comedy routine gave way to Nelson Eddie’s singing, millions of listeners began twirling the dial, the radio equivalent of channel surfing.

That was about the time when things started to heat up in “The War of the Worlds” broadcast. Dial twirlers missed the beginning when the announcement was made that this was just a play. To them, it sounded like a real news broadcast. But it was fake news.

They heard that martians were invading, wiping out New Jersey and heading towards New York City. It sounded real. The show started with a musical orchestra with the broadcast being interrupted by special reports.

Americans were highly attuned to the sound of bad news and crisis - stock market crash, mass unemployment, bank failures, Hitler. Wells could not have timed his play better. Many listeners swallowed the whole thing. To them this was a national emergency. But it was just a play.

There were a lot of listeners. Eighty percent of American households had radios, which were telling them that strange creatures emerged from their capsules and sprayed humans with deadly light rays.

CBS’s phone banks became jammed, as were phone banks at police stations, newspapers and radio stations. People ran out into the streets and began fleeing. Then there were those who misunderstood the martian part and assumed that the Nazis were invading. And the panic grew.

CBS executives sent word to the studio, where the live broadcast was taking place, to inject an announcement in the program that this was just a play, but Wells ignored it. He was directing the greatest play of his career.

To top things off, there was a power failure in the small city of Concrete, Washington at the same time the broadcast was being aired. You can imagine how that freaked out residents there.

At 42 minutes past the hour, Wells delivered the station break, a full 10 minutes after CBS demanded it. But many who were listening at that point were preoccupied with packing their bags and heading for the hills.

The next morning the broadcast was headlined in hundreds of papers, including the New York Times, and Wells apologized. Then he went to Hollywood and became a famous movie producer.

And the country had a full-scale dose of fake news. To many who listened, the medium was the message – and to many it still is today.