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Press Release

Jonathan Potts

For immediate release:
June 10, 2005

Legendary "War of the Worlds" Broadcast Demonstrated the Power of the Mass Media, Says Carnegie Mellon Professor

Steven Spielberg's film is the latest incarnation of the 1898 H.G. Wells novel

PITTSBURGH—Steven Spielberg's "The War of the Worlds" might be the next big summer blockbuster, but it's unlikely to top what happened in 1938 when Orson Welles performed his adaptation of the H.G. Wells' novel on the radio: Thousands of people, believing the broadcast was a real news account, fled their homes or called authorities to find out how to survive the alien invasion that was being reported in vivid detail over their radios. This would prove to be a watershed moment for the mass media, said Kathy M. Newman, an associate professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University and author of the 2004 book "Radio Active."

"The 1938 hoax showed the power of the new medium of radio to do two things: create the effect of reality, and to move people, literally, to act," Newman said.

Spielberg has said his "The War of the Worlds" was influenced by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Newman notes that the previous big-screen version, in 1953, came during the Cold War when America was fighting a war in Korea, and the novel—regarded as a critique of British colonialism—was published as the tensions that would lead Europe into World War I were beginning to mount in 1898.

"This story continues to be compelling because of the constant state of war during the 20th and 21st centuries. So far planet Earth has not suffered an alien invasion, but the world has been at war several times since Wells published his novel," Newman said.

In "Radio Active" Newman chronicles the early influence of commercial radio, which offended the middle class with its commercialism but was embraced by the working class because it was free entertainment. In the wake of "The War of the Worlds" broadcast, the public called on government to increase its regulation of radio, and an Ecuadorian version of the broadcast touched off a riot by angry listeners that resulted in the death of 15 people, Newman said.

"This story plays to our most fundamental fear: the fear that there is some 'other' being out there, watching us, more intelligent than we are, and bent on our destruction," Newman said.


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