Broadcasting the Barricades

Today marks the 89th anniversary of what is probably the first fake news broadcast in history: Broadcasting the Barricades, a satirical skit that aired over the BBC on January 16, 1926. The show was the work of a Catholic priest, a satirist, and a writer of detective fiction who all happened to be the same man: Father Ronald Arbuthnott Knox. Knox penned the skit to poke fun at the BBC, because he believed his countrymen took what they heard on the radio too seriously. But he copied the style of BBC news bulletins so well that some listeners mistook his satire for the real thing.

Father Ronald A. Knox, courtesy Wikimedia Commons (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ronaldknox.jpg)

Father Ronald A. Knox, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Broadcasting the Barricades “reported” that a mob of unemployed workers were attacking London and lynching government ministers. A portion of Knox’s audience apparently believed these reports to be true, because newspapers and the BBC soon found themselves overwhelmed with calls about the fictitious uprising. This incident is often cited as a predecessor to the alleged panic surrounding Orson Welles’s 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast. But, as with the later show, there are definite indications that the reports of hysteria surrounding Knox’s broadcast were exaggerated. The BBC, for instance, later reported receiving an influx of mail from listeners who enjoyed the show, as Welles and CBS would in 1938.

Still, the fake news format of Broadcasting the Barricades was remarkably similar to Welles’s War of the Worlds, and evidence suggests that reports of Knox’s broadcast may have served as one of Welles’s inspirations. You’ll find the full history of this forgotten experiment in fake news, and its connection to the infamous Martian invasion of 1938, in my upcoming book Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News, which comes out on May 5.

For now, though, it’s worth reiterating that history’s first fake news broadcast was the work of a talented satirist who was also a man of deep Catholic faith. I’m sure Stephen Colbert, today’s preeminent fake news satirist and “America’s most famous Catholic,” would approve.

-ABS

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Fake News Day

Today – October 30, 2014 – marks the 76th anniversary of Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast. On this day in 1938, Welles and his Mercury Theatre on the Air unleashed their radio version of H.G. Wells’s classic novel of a Martian invasion, adapted by writer Howard Koch into a series of fake news bulletins. The show perfectly captured the American zeitgeist in that year before the outbreak of World War II, and it caused a terrific stir – seriously frightening some listeners, prompting calls for government censorship of radio, and catapulting the 23-year-old Welles to stardom.

Seventy-two years later, and four years ago today, fake news made headlines once again. On October 30, 2010, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert hosted a “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” in Washington, D.C. Before a crowd of over two hundred thousand people, they roasted the American news media, satirizing the way pundits play up false fears and conflicts.

Welles’s War of the Worlds and Stewart and Colbert’s rally share an anniversary purely by coincidence; Stewart explained to his Daily Show audience that they chose the date solely for convenience. Yet these events have much more in common than a quirk of the calendar. The myth of Welles’s broadcast, that it proved Americans believed anything they heard on the radio, was a product of the same kind of journalistic haste and fear-mongering that Stewart and Colbert satirized at the Rally to Restore Sanity. The issues they raised in 2010 were just as relevant in 1938 as they are today.

In my upcoming book BROADCAST HYSTERIA: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds & the Art of Fake News, I draw upon hundreds of previously unpublished documents to tell the complete and untold story of the broadcast and its effect on the country. My research sheds new light on the production of War of the Worlds, and reveals the true extent of the “panic” that it allegedly inspired. But above all, it demonstrates that Americans in the 1930s grappled with the new medium of radio in much the same way that we today grapple with the new medium of the Internet. Their fears and hopes about the mass media’s power are very similar to our own, and we have much to learn from their insights and mistakes.

BROADCAST HYSTERIA will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux on May 5, 2015, one day before the hundredth anniversary of Orson Welles’s birth. It is currently available for pre-order from various retailers (MacmillanAmazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Apple’s iBookstore, Powell’s, IndieBound, and more). I’ll be blogging regularly over the 187 days leading up to publication, and tweeting from @ABradSchwartz, offering new insights into Welles, War of the Worlds, and Old Time Radio, as well as details on events and book signings I’ll be a part of. Please check back frequently for updates. Welles’s centennial promises to be quite a party, and I hope you’ll join me in celebrating it.

And in honor of Welles, Stewart, and Colbert, I think it’s only fitting that from here on out, October 30 be known as “Fake News Day,” devoted to those irreverent souls who make us think by throwing spitballs at our media.

See you on May 5!

-ABS