Not easy get­ting to the truth

Shepparton News - - VIEWPOINT - John.lewis@ shep­p­news.com.au 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 chief of staff at The News. Chris ‘CM’ Mur­phy

Pic­ture: AP

Myth born: Or­son Welles dur­ing his in­fa­mous 1938 ra­dio broad­cast of War of the Worlds.

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