Not easy getting to the truth

By John Lewis

Who do you believe when it comes to the truth of a story?

And how do you check whether something is real or not?

These are some of the issues that were tackled in a fascinating original play which premiered at Shepparton Theatre Arts Group’s Black Box Theatre last week.

On the 80th anniversary of mass media’s first viral story, Steve Boltz and Amy Hollow’s play Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air in The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells recounted how a radio broadcast on October 30, 1938, sent waves of mass panic across the north of America.

Or did it?

When H.G. Wells’ famous science fiction story of a Martian invasion of earth aired on the Columbia Broadcasting System radio network as part of a Halloween program, rumours quickly spread that people were jumping off buildings, fleeing their homes, stampeding, and being treated for shock and nervous breakdown.

Newspaper headlines the next day — such as ‘‘Radio Terrifies Nation’’ and ‘‘Fake Radio ‘War’ Stirs Terror Through US’’ — helped fuel the viral message that Welles’ radio play caused mass panic.

The morning after the broadcast, the unknown Welles awoke to find himself an infamous national celebrity.

For decades, the myth of how Welles’ show caused mass panic was kept alive by books, TV shows and more newspaper stories.

Today after decades of believing the myth and not the reality, the story of mass panic is largely discredited as media sensationalism.

There were no actual recorded instances of panic at all.

Unless you count the residents of a small town called Grover’s Mill firing buckshot into their water tower because they thought it had been turned into a Martian war machine.

Interestingly, sensationalist newspaper stories at the time only lasted a day or two, but the myth persisted for more than 70 years.

Why is this stuff important now? Well — consider Trump, climate change, social media, vaccines, crime rates, coal, migrants, mobile phones and cancer, UFOs and plastic coffee cups. Each of these delicious contemporary flash points are served up with a swirling cream-topping fog of myth, rumour and conspiracy.

It’s up to us to make our minds up on who and what to believe.

The old certainties have gone and there is no absolute truth.

So we choose our own sources — Facebook, The Daily Mail, the ABC, The Project, the Bible, Das Kapital or, God forbid, academic research.

For most of us, the closest we can get to anything resembling truth would be a fact check by the ABC.

But if you’re an Institute of Public Affairs member, the ABC might seem to be a nest of socialist vipers.

So we stumble on through this fog of half-truths and myth that make up public affairs.

When everyone has a platform to shout their beliefs at the world, we find the trusty old foundation of common sense just isn’t that common any more.

The world is now a place even more fractured than it was in Welles’ era.

Steve Boltz and Amy Hollow cleverly tapped into this reminder of past follies to show that despite a vast gulf of technological change, human beings are no closer to explaining their own behaviour.

We’re still a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

John Lewis is cheif of staff at The News.