An amazing thing happened in 1938. The power of media became undeniably visible for all the world to see on the evening of October 30, 1938. Radio was the major medium. There was no TV, no internet, and aside from print newspapers radio was the means by which the majority of the civilized world got their news. If it was live reporting then it came by a voice over the airwaves.
On that night in the late '30s, Orson Welles was trying to drive up his own listening audience, and he felt the need to shake things up a bit. Taking a cue from an H.G. Wells novel, Welles and his staff wrote a radio-based play that sounded so real and so terrifying that mass hysteria broke out in parts of the United States. By virtue of a confluence of events led by Welles and his broadcast team, people around the nation truly believed that the earth was under attack by invaders from outer space.
This may sound ludicrous now. It could easily be the butt of derisive jokes, or something that would cause some to roll their eyes. But in 1938, people had come to trust the ability of radio to deliver messages that they needed to hear.
Welles mixed his broadcast with sounds of chaos, fake live reporting from descriptive scenes of fighting, and news reports indicating that the U.S. Army was engaging the enemy. There were quick interviews with astronomers confirming that multiple observatories had witnessed unexplained phenomena from outside our atmosphere and reporters detailed metal objects crashing to earth disgorging tentacled leathery creatures that shot fire from strange weapons. At one point, claims were made that New York City was being evacuated. To cap it off, a person sounding remarkably like President Franklin Roosevelt began to address the nation, saying: “Citizens of the nation: I shall not try to conceal the gravity of the situation that confronts the country, nor the concern of your government in protecting the lives and property of its people. . . . we must continue the performance of our duties each and every one of us, so that we may confront this destructive adversary with a nation united, courageous, and consecrated to the preservation of human supremacy on this earth.”
In real life, it is said that all across the United States listeners reacted with panic. Thousands of people called radio stations, police and newspapers. Many in the New England area were said to have loaded their cars and fled their homes. In other areas, people went to churches to pray. There were sporadic anecdotal reports of miscarriages and early births and even some deaths. Many people were hysterical as they thought the end was near.
To say that the public was outraged when the truth became known is an understatement as evidenced by multiple lawsuits. The “War of the Worlds” broadcast became evidence of the power of media being used to shape what some have termed as “mass formation psychosis,” the mass acceptance of messaging designed to panic or shape behavior.
But there was so much more to it. The mental and emotional states of the American public were a bit fragile at that moment in 1938. One recounting of the event on history.com says it this way: “Fear and anxiety had become a way of life in the 1930s, and it took little to rattle jittery Americans. The Depression had emptied their wallets, the gathering crisis in Europe threatened to ignite into war and just weeks earlier the Hurricane of 1938 had roared ashore. Plus, the Hindenburg disaster, which had been broadcast over the airwaves just the year before, was still fresh in the country’s collective psyche.”
Welles and CBS learned some hard lessons that night. But they are lessons that need to be relearned, especially in this modern era. We live in a day and age when politicos and pundits and protestors have worn some portions of today’s society into a series of raw wounds. Over the past few years, we have seen BLM and Antifa loot and burn with impunity, elections procedures and results fall into question, inflation at 40-year levels, the debacle of the Afghanistan pullout, and lest we overlook the most egregious and injurious of all, the COVID pandemic and its resulting power grabs, shutdowns, and resultant economic malaise.
In light of all that was just described, I have to then say that last week’s speech by the sitting President of the United States was one of the worst examples of fear-mongering that I’ve seen. Perhaps on par with Welles and War of the Worlds, yet intentional in its impact as opposed to Welles' accidental mass panic.
Joe Biden purposefully stood in front of an eerie low-light red cast backdrop with two uniformed Marines standing behind him flanking the red cast doorway. Odd camera angles were often looking up at him to give him the effect of being above the crowd as he waved his hands and angrily shouted down anyone who dared to oppose what he proclaims to be acceptable truth. Using taxpayer dollars and the seal of the great Office of the President, combined with the presence of our U.S. military, Biden embraced every possible conflict of interest and gave a purely partisan political speech that was literally designed to foment discord and to insult anyone who disagrees with his politics.
Keep in mind that he did not walk out into an impromptu setting and speak at someone else’s podium. This was intentional optics that were put in place by what is touted to be the ultimate communications team. That speech was designed with malice aforethought by handlers who believed that he needed to be seen as the strong man who could cow a fragile public into their acceptable place.
In my opinion, the President of the United States came across as evil, a word that I rarely use and only reserve for the most egregious character designations that I can think of.
In an effort to be seen as “the Man,” Biden came across as an evil individual being spirited along by dangerous winds as he railed that anyone who supports President Trump and what he calls the “MAGA agenda” is to be considered dangerous and an actual threat to our democracy. Over 70 million voters, a huge swath of our society, were labeled by Biden as a threat to our very way of life. As he gave this well-rehearsed, well-orchestrated, rebuke and openly threatened millions of people who merely differ in their views, Biden abandoned his self-proclaimed moniker of “Uniter in Chief.” He became, by his own volition, the “Alarmist in Chief,” intent on not just dividing our society, but on fracturing it under penalty of persecution from the Office of the Presidency and every asset available to the government.
The speech and its concomitant visual statements did not have the desired effect. Unlike “War of the Worlds,” there was no immediate rush to a mass formation psychosis. There was no penitence of the masses, no millions of angry MAGA folks throwing down their independence in adherence and acquiescence to the angry dear leader with the red backdrop.
No one is buying it. We are not packing the car, grabbing the dog, and heading for the hills. There is an alternative message to be gained, a message that we will not be divided, we will not be cowed down, we will not be silent.
Take heart in knowing that just like in most examples of mass formation psychosis the speech in question was just another example of a noisy minority that abuses a majority. In essence, there are actually more of us than there are of them. We’ve come a long way since 1938. See the truth and walk in it. Keep your heads on a swivel and your emotions clear.
And would someone please fire whoever it was in the White House that thought that speech was a good idea.
Phil Williams is a former State Senator, retired Army Colonel and combat veteran, and a practicing Attorney. He has served with the leadership of the Alabama Policy Institute and currently hosts the conservative news/talk show Rightside Radio M-F 2-5 pm on multiple channels throughout north Alabama. (WVNN 92.5FM/770AM-Huntsville/Athens; WXJC 101.FM and WYDE 850AM – Birmingham/Cullman) His column appears every Monday in 1819 News.
To contact Phil or request him for a speaking engagement, go to www.rightsideradio.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819News.com.