February 1st, 2007

RKO Radio Pictures

the anatomy of a panic

On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater on the Air program performed, as a Halloween special, a live radio adaptation of H.G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds." Boy Genius Orson Welles, already known as an innovator on the New York stage, worked with writer Howard Koch to create a new form of radio drama for this tale: a "You Are There" style of storytelling, using the radio broadcast medium as the story device.

The story of Martians landing in Grovers Mill, New Jersey was presented as a series of news flashes interrupting "regular" programming -- in this case, a fictitious music show. As the Martian threat progresses in the story, with more cities falling victim to the alien menace, the nature of the newscasts grows more and more horrifying. The story ends with the famous and chilling scene of a news reporter on top of the CBS building in New York describing the cloud of Martian poison gas approaching him, closer, closer, until there's nothing but silence... and then one lone radio operator sending a CQ (an "is there anybody out there?" message) across the airwaves.

The program itself ends with Orson Welles, first in character as an astronomer, explaining that the Martians had suddenly died due to the Earth's germs and bacteria, and then out of character, explaining that the show was merely a "scary story" for Halloween. However, it was too late; the damage had already been done. Radio listeners had indeed gone into a panic, spreading the news and rumors to their neighbors and family; when the police showed up at Grover's Mill to help quell the crowds of panicked New Jersey residents showing up to view the apparent menace, their presence only helped perpetuate the illusion that aliens had indeed landed.

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You've probably guessed where I'm heading here, what with Boston now the laughingstock of the country after yesterday's Mooninite bomb scare. Our state and local authorities, now with egg on their face after apparently overreacting to an electronic viral marketing campaign for a television program, are fuming and sputtering and accusing Turner Broadcasting, as well as the two local artists hired to install the LED pictures, of conducting a hoax. That they knowingly put up these advertisements (admittedly illegally-placed) with the intent of the devices being perceived as dangerous explosive devices. That instead of advertising a wacky cartoon show featuring anthropomorphic food and irritatingly profane moon creatures, they deliberately wanted to spread panic in Boston ("when in danger or in doubt, run in circles; scream and shout.")

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Last night, the two artists who put up the devices under the employ of the advertising agency used by Turner Broadcasting (follow the trail!) were arrested and charged with violating Massachusetts General Law Chapter 266, section 102A1/2 (placing "...any hoax device or hoax substance with the intent to cause anxiety, unrest, fear or personal discomfort to any person or group of persons") as well as disorderly conduct.

Today, in the course of writing this, the two men were arraigned (where even the prosecution admitted the men were putting up advertising and did not intend to cause the aforementioned anxiety, unrest, fear, etc.) and then released on $2500 bail. They told reporters outside the courthouse they would only answer questions about hair ("They're performance artists," explained one's lawyer.) While it may seem quite presumptuous and cocky to fool around after one's arraignment (and upcoming trial), at least they're treating the coverage as the media circus it is.

Seventy years down the line, I'm sure the Mooninite Scare of 2007 will not be remembered with as much gravitas as the War Of The Worlds Scare of 1938, but it followed the same basic blueprint. Entertainment is mistaken for true danger; panic spreads via several channels, some of which learn of the mistake before others; authorities are red-faced and upset once the dust settles; and the perpetrators are flung all sorts of heinous charges, but are really only guilty of poor judgement and underestimating their performance's impact.

(Now comes the facetious part.) But of course the real issue, as all Americans know, is WHO DO WE BLAME? For we are never satisfied until we can finally point that finger of blame at someone so that the vilification can begin.

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Is that everybody? Do you have enough now for as much recrimination as you'd like? Excellent. L.H. Puttgrass signing off and heading for the tub.

tl;dr - hey where'd this mountain come from? there was only a molehill here yesterday
Tom Lehrer is Smug

for those who don't read b0st0n -- and apologies for the repeat to those who do

Here it is, folks, your Moment of Denouement.
Music, Maestro? *ahem*

You and I in our little workshop
Making LED lights from the money we got
Hanging glowies before dawn
Til one by one, they're all done
Three weeks later, MBTA subway
Worker sees one, he goes "Oh hey,
Better call the bomb squad by
Cause ninety-nine Mooninites have arrived"

Ninety-nine Mooninites
Hanging from the overpass
With their middle fingers high
As if to say "Hub, kiss my ass"
Here's Ignignokt, that one's Err
But Boston does not know for sure
The Aqua Teens are advertised
By ninety-nine Mooninites in the sky

Ninety-nine cops on the scene
Can't believe what they've just seen
There's batteries and wires, too
And no one knows just what to do
They look explosive, clench your fists
They must be from terrorists!
We better blast them to the sky
Cause ninety-nine Mooninites must die

Ninety-nine white vans arrive
All with TV crews inside
Everyone's a news reporter
Everyone's a Chet or Nat
Breathlessly they cause a panic
Are these bombs or just Satanic?
Suddenly the bloggers cry
"Wait a minute, those are Mooninites!"

Ninety-nine lulz we have had
And all because of Pete and Sean
It's all over, but Menino's mumbling
Words like "hoax" to hide his bumbling
Folks are selling souvenirs
To commemorate our Day of Fear
And here is a Mooninite
I check eBay and make my bid...