Friday, 13 September 2013

How Orson Welles Faked Public Knowledge in "War of the Worlds"

On Halloween 1938, Orson Welles' Mercury Theater on the Air performed a dramatized version of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds. Within 16 minutes of the broadcast, over one million Americans believed Martians had landed in New Jersey. Throngs were calling their local police and fire departments, volunteering for service in the war against the Martians, a man returned to his house to find his wife holding a glass of poison, claiming it was better to die this way than being eaten by the Martians, people in Boston reported being able to see the flames from the Martian heat ray on the horizon. The effect surprised Orson Welles and his fellow actors more than anyone. Below you can see his attempt at making sense of the situation and his apology for the consequences of his broadcast.

How was this possible? How could an otherwise educated and intelligent public become so utterly convinced by such a fantastic story that they let that conviction guide their actions and override their senses?

In “Rhetoric and Public Knowledge,” Lloyd Bitzer defines public knowledge as “a fund of truths, principles, and values which could only characterize a public” and that a public which has such knowledge “is made competent to accredit new truth and value and to authorize decision and action” (68). Essentially, public knowledge becomes a framework out of which we can judge new truths and values. A public also has a set process by which new knowledge is accepted, or “a power of authorization through which some truths and values are accredited” (68). This process, or method, is a kind of rhetoric. “Rhetoric generates truths and values previously unknown to the public” and it “serves as an instrument with which to test public truths and values and justify public means and ends” (68). It both generates and tests truths in a generally acceptable way.

The reason Orson Welles’ broadcast War of the Worlds was so effective in altering the “public knowledge” of its listeners was because it successfully made use of the rhetorical process by which normal truths were introduced and established in the public of that time to introduce and establish a fiction. Perhaps the most pervasive method in this process was the use of phony representatives or spokesmen.

In the rhetorical process to introduce and test public knowledge, Bitzer writes that spokesmen are like prophets (74). We could therefore say that Welles effectively manipulated public knowledge by using false prophets to proclaim a false truth. On one level, there was the medium of the radio itself. As a widely disseminated and highly regulated medium, the radio in 1938 possessed an authority as a receptacle and fountain of truth which few of this age can imagine (Cantril xii). This authority is transferred to the radio announcer, who, without possessing any other credentials, is instantly believable as the transmitter of facts. The credibility of the radio as a source of information is even mentioned in the play, where the radio relinquishes control to serve the army since "radio has a responsibility to serve the public interest in all situations" (Welles).

Next, there is a long list of representatives who speak for the most prominent institutions granted authority to validate truths. As Bitzer writes, "public speakers and audiences . . . stand in for publics" as when "an eminent scientist . . . speaks for science" (73). Professor Pierson becomes the representative of the voice of science in the play, confronting fantastic claims with skepticism (8, 10) and triangulating his observations with those of other scientists and empirical evidence (6, 10), until he is convinced and validates a new truth. In stating this new truth, he acts in his capacity "as a scientist" (Welles) proclaiming with the authorization derived from what we know as "the agreements of experts or of elite persons" (Bitzer 76).

When this truth is summarized by the announcer, he focuses on the process of its discovery and validation: "Incredible as it may seem, both observations of science and the evidence of our eyes lead to the inescapable assumption that those strange beings are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars" (Welles). Other public acknowledgments follow from other institutions authorized to validate new truths for the public: the National Guard, military, and finally Secretary of Interior all support this new and terrible truth. This perception of reality is also validated by the masses of people reportedly fleeing from the aliens: "Highways to the north, south, and west are clogged with frantic human traffic" (Welles).

Now, what of all this "knowledge" is public knowledge as defined by Bitzer? If it were real, the Martian invasion would not have been public knowledge in this sense, but rather "private knowledge made general" since it would have existence independent of a public (84). Public knowledge has no existence or at least looks different outside of a public. The public shapes knowledge when, "Purely factual conditions experienced by the public come into relation with shared sentiments, principles, and values that characterize persons not as individuals but as members of the public: and the power of participation transforms those factual conditions into the public's personal facts" (85). Personal facts here means facts which have been colored by emotions and perceptions. In 1938, the factual condition of voices speaking over the radio was transformed into something meaningful when it mixed with the public perception of the radio as transmitter of truth and recognition of titles (which do not exist in the absence of a public) giving the voices authority to establish new truths. This mixture transformed the factual conditions (voices heard on the radio) into the personal fact of a public that said Martians were invading USA.

Bitzer writes, "the public is the ground and the authority of all of its personal facts, which count therefore as part of public knowledge" (85). The Martian Invasion in 1938 was an evanescent personal fact of the public. One could say that it was truly public knowledge, since it had absolutely no existence independent of a public. Though systems of public knowledge are faulty and can be tricked, as shown in this instance, we need such systems in order to know things together, which is the necessary foundation for any kind of communal action. Hopefully, such glitches in the system make it clear to us that even these systems have faults, helping us to be humble and vigilant in testing what we know as a society and how we come to know it. Just because the voice you hear on the radio self-identifies as an expert, it doesn't necessarily mean the he or she is anything more than one voice and one opinion among many.

Here is the full broadcast. Masterfully executed, even by today's standards