Back in the 1930s, when radio was still something of a novelty, an event took place that rocked the American listening public back on its heels as no other before or since has -- quite. Young Orson Welles, whose movie "Citizen Kane" would later cause a ruckus with newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hurst because Welles had modeled his protagonist so closely after Hurst, decided to produce H.G. Wells's (no relation) "War of the Worlds" for his "Mercury Theater of the Air."
So far so good.
The problem began to take shape when Welles decided to begin his program by appearing to interrupt the program already on the air. "We interrupt this program," the nervous-sounding announcer began, "to make an important announcement that affects each listener. Martian spaceships have landed in the United States! I repeat, Martians have landed in the United States!"
You can imagine the panic and mayhem that ensued!
My parents, who somehow missed this now legendary faux-pas in modern American history, used to tell me that a couple of their friends, convinced the world was coming to an end, rushed from their apartment to the corner liquor store, stocked up on gin and Canadian Club, ran back to their apartment and phoned all their neighboring friends, inviting them over to commemorate the end of the world in high style!
Sure, convinced that today was the last day of your life, what would you do? It would, I guess, depend on the values instilled in you as a child. Some would rush to the bedside of their elderly and infirm neighbors and relatives, there to comfort them in their last moments on earth. Others would murder their wealthy neighbors, then plunder what they could find, numb to the fact that they'd have no time to spend their ill-gotten gains.
I've forgotten the myriad stories I've heard about the folks that took Welles's broadcast seriously, then lived to regret what they did as a result. The topic that monopolized America's conversations the morning after "The War of the Worlds" was, naturally, the frightening responsibility America's broadcasters have toward the public.
Much to wife Ginny's dismay, I've begun to spend a fair part of the day keeping tabs on FOX-TV, partly because, except for CNN, it's my only source of 24-hour, lively, if shockingly biased, news reporting; and partly because my best friend's son is Bill O'Reilly's special assistant. So, in the last few weeks I've drawn some conclusions about FOX-TV: 1) Most of their hosts, with the possible exception of Shepherd Smith, are ill-disguised political conservatives who don't even pretend to be impartial (although they advertise their presentations to be "full and unbiased"); 2) When they interview political guests, the hosts interrupt and badger them shamelessly. Why the guests don't complain or walk out of the studio is beyond me, but they never do.
If anyone can exceed O'Reilly in pure boorishness, it's Glenn Beck, a fairly recent FOX hire, who seems to have ignited a recent ruckus by claiming President Obama was, in his projected radio talk to America's school kids, insidiously using the air waves to corrupt our kids and enlist their help in furthering his own political agenda. Since this, he claimed, was a hazard to our way of life, Mr. Beck urged parents to keep their kids at home, where they'd be safe from such seditious shenanigans.
Before any of them had actually read the script of Obama's speech, for every parent who planned to send her child off to school, thereby subjecting the kid to Mr. Obama's efforts at mind-control, there was at least one parent who planned to keep her child at home. This latter parent it was who reminded me of my parents' friend, who, spooked by Orson Welles's radio warning, let himself get paralyzingly sloshed. Alas, there are still listeners/watchers who believe that if it appears on FOX-TV, it must be true.
The great 1920s American journalist H. L. Mencken once said, "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public." I thought of that as I listened to the good citizens who pulled their kids out of school last week, lest they fall under the evil spell of their duly elected President. Alas, Mr. Obama's speech turned out to be merely a fervid plea for kids to stay in school to help both themselves and their country.