“Spooked: How a Radio Broadcast and the War of the Worlds Sparked the 1938 Invasion of America” by Gail Jarrow.
Calkins Creek Publishers, Honesdale, Pennsylvania, 2018, 139 pages, Grades 5-8.
There have been repeated accusations in the political world about “fake news.” This is a serious problem because the United States Constitution insures the freedom of the press. Therefore the news must be reliable, or the public will lose its trust in the media.
In Benito Mussolini’s fascist Italy in the 1930s, a simple solution was posited: all the news should be agreeable to the government. Otherwise, the news was false. It is a short step to then say the news is “fake.” But people also have a responsibility to study the facts and make sound decisions. They need to learn the facts and make rational decisions. If they don’t, they can be driven by fear and panic.
The most famous case of news going off the rails happened Oct. 30, 1938. This was the famous radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’s novel “The War of the Worlds.” On that night, a radio reading of the book sent hundreds of people into panic. Gail Jarrow traces the events that led up to tumultuous night in her book, “Spooked: How a Radio Broadcast and the War of the Worlds Sparked the 1938 Invasion of America.”
By the late 1930s, many Americans listen to radio programs. In fact, it was not unusual for the entire family to listen to broadcasts in the evening. Sunday night is a prime time for radio producers because many people were relaxing by hearing their favorite radio shows before the start of the new week. A brilliant young radio star named Orson Wells comes up with an unusual idea. Why not rewrite parts of H.G. Wells’s novel, “The War of the Worlds” and make an exciting program on the evening before Halloween?
Talk about a trick. So Wells begins weaving fact and fiction together in the program. For example, he has the program interrupted a number of times with “news flashes.” The audience is told that spaceships have landed in New Jersey and are attacking New York City. They have deadly ray guns that are killing thousands.
Wells then begins warping the listeners’ sense of time. Repeated interruptions give the wrong times for events. Time is speeded up through this deception and some listeners become disoriented and frightened.
Then one of the announcers mimics President Roosevelt’s voice, announcing that Martians have landed in New Jersey. Phone calls begin pouring into the radio studio as hundreds of people ask in terrified voices if the Martians have really landed in New Jersey.
The producers hastily make several announcements that the show is just fabricated from the novel. But it is too late. People wonder if poison gas is spreading across New York City. Should people on the East Coast flee farther west? Have they been trapped by space invaders?
What finally happens in the War of the Worlds broadcast? How could such a show cause so much panic and chaos in the United States? How did people respond when they realized that they had been duped? Why is accurate news so important and why must news never be fake? Americans learn that far more is at stake with radio communications after this event.
Gail Jarrow relates the entire series of events from the show’s creation, to the actual delivery of the program, and finally to near-tragic consequences for some people. This is a powerful book that addresses a number of areas we hear about repeatedly on news broadcasts today.
I hope that you get a chance to go to the library and check out this important title. Jarrow demonstrates why news must be accurate and not manipulated. As well, she stresses the need of citizen awareness of events so that they will not accept propaganda. This work won the American Library Association Sibert Honor Award in 2019 for nonfiction. I hope you get a chance to read the book. It accurately discusses an important topic that is affecting our democracy today.