Friday, December 15, 2006

Channeling Orson Welles

[Posted by reader_iam]

O.K., so how bad am I that I laughed out loud--albeit in that semi-horrified sort of way--when I read that a Belgian television broadcast a fake story that the country had split up?
Suddenly and shockingly, Belgium came to an end.

State television broke into regular programming late Wednesday with an urgent bulletin: The Dutch-speaking half of the country had declared independence and the king and queen had fled. Grainy pictures from the military airport showed dark silhouettes of a royal entourage boarding a plane.

Only after a half-hour did the station flash the message: "This is fiction."

It was too late. Many Belgians had already fallen for the hoax.

Now, I grant you, some of the reactions were not so funny:
Frantic viewers flooded the call center of RTBF, the station that aired the stunt. Embassies called Belgian authorities to find out what was going on, while foreign journalists scrambled to get confirmation.

"Ambassadors who were worried asked what they had to tell their capitals," said Anne-Marie Lizin, the Senate president. "This fiction was seen as a reality and it created a catastrophic image of the country."

Oh, that's true only if Belgian politicians make it so. People now know it's a hoax, perpetrated by a single television station run by judgment-impaired folks. (According to the MSNBC version, the news head compared the hoax to Welles' Radio Theatre adaptation of H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds", so he surely knew the reaction that the broadcast would provoke.)
It seems to me there will be lasting damage to Belgium's reputation only if proves itself to be utterly humorless and unable to adopt an appropriate sense of perspective and proportion.

Of course, my take would be different had mass riots broken out, or had the residents of Flanders and Wallonia started taking up arms against each other. Since neither of those things happened, go ahead and call RTBF's director on the carpet, if you must. Then move along, move along.

[You can listen to Welles' Mercury Theatre radio production here, by the way.]