KONG - Journalism has taken quite a beating recently
with the likes of Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley - fired
from The New York Times and USA Today respectively for
fabricating stories - and with the Daily Mirror printing
phony photos of British troops abusing Iraqi prisoners.
But while others wring their hands and bemoan the lost
credibility of a noble craft, I simply shrug my
shoulders. I figure Blair and Kelley and whoever
concocted the hoax photos were simply working for the
wrong newspapers. You see, for a year and a half I was
encouraged and paid reasonably well to write phony news
Odds are you've seen my work, been
momentarily fascinated with it, and probably furtively
perused it while simultaneously making sure that no one
saw you reading it.
It's available at virtually
every supermarket checkout stand in the United States,
is distributed widely in Canada and the United Kingdom,
and I've heard rumors there are copies in Hong Kong.
It's one creaky, crooked step above pornography and
about 49 flights down from the likes of The New York
Times. The low-budget black-and-white layout resembles a
ransom note, and its headlines scream things such as, "I
keep Mom's ashes in the vacuum cleaner", "Live mermaid
found in tuna can" and "Bible prophecies: Satanic terror
the government doesn't want you to see!"
the Weekly World News.
"Who writes this stuff?"
you may have asked. Well, I did after an otherwise
respectable career in "straight" journalism. You may
have seen my double opus: "Saddam statue sheds mystery
tears" and "Saddam's doubles looking for new jobs". Or
perhaps the "mermaid in the tuna can" exclusive and
several similar fishy follow-ups, until the editor at
the time declared in a memo to the staff titled "The
Last Mermaid" that, "In this week's issue of WWN, you
will see a mermaid on page 3. This will be the last
mermaid you see in the pages of WWN for a while. We will
also be banning vampires, zombies, elves, leprechauns,
genies, witches, werewolves and most other FANTASY
Clearly, even the Weekly World News
has standards, something that would come as a surprise
to many of its fans. It even fact-checks, albeit not to
verify the existence of Elvis on Mars but to prevent
libel suits. The newsroom itself looks and operates just
like a "real" newsroom, with the exception of editors
hollering things like "Where is that talking-french-fry
story?" I sometimes poked into chat rooms inhabited by
WWN readers to see what the masses were thinking and
found that remarks like, "I'd love to work there! What a
sweet gig - do nothing but smoke weed and think up Elvis
and alien stories all day" were typical.
contraire, dear reader. Put down that bong for a
minute, and let me tell you it ain't easy cranking out
world beaters such as "Jesus' sandals found", "Discount
body parts business booming" and, my personal favorite,
"Wisconsin bowling team worshipped as gods by South
American tribe" five days a week, eight hours a day.
Just like its legitimate-journalism
counterparts, the Weekly World News was always groping
for a way to boost circulation. Hence, excited,
upper-case lettered memos like this with the subject
line: "Things you never knew about WWN!"
GUYS & GALS: I just wanted to educate you folks with
a few things you NEVER knew about WWN. About 10 years
ago, when WWN was at its sales peak, the mag was a
combination of HALF-FICTION and HALF-TRUE STORIES.
"The TRUE stories were a mix of TRUE CRIME,
LIFESTYLE STORIES, and useful HOW TO'S. The TRUE stories
were a way for us to BALANCE out the GOOFY stuff. And
the GOOFY stuff never got TOO GOOFY.
TRUE stories we put in, the more it made the other
stories seem true.
"Somewhere along the line,
WWN got away from the true stuff and went ALL-GOOFY ...
and chased away a sizable portion of its readership.
"Now we are working to get those readers back.
The way we are doing this is by bringing the TRUE stuff
back, and scaling down the goofy stuff.
more BELIEVABLE stuff. Will we still run BIGFOOT &
ALIEN stories? YES, but not as frequently, and they
won't be as WACKY. You will be seeing a LOT more TRUE
stuff in WWN, starting immediately.
have to feel they are getting something USEFUL out of
WWN. We CANNOT survive on just GOOFY stories anymore.
"Sales show that NOBODY wants a newspaper full
of nothing but useless, goofy stories. People want a
newspaper that ENTERTAINS them, but also EDUCATES them
and gives them something they can really USE.
"Our readers are also big believers in
PREDICTIONS & HOROSCOPES, so we'll be doing a lot
more of that stuff. The idea here is to win back those
old ladies at the supermarket who pick us up because
they believe we give them something that will make a
difference in their lives, not just a JOKEBOOK."
After several weeks of readjustment and running
a lot of biblical-diet-miracle weight-loss and
educational prophecy stories, the "no GOOFY" edict was
followed by another memo from the same editor: "You knew
this day was coming - it's finally here! WWN is going
ALL WACKY, ALL THE TIME!!!
"Put on your FUNNY
hats and let's get WILD!!!
"I want you guys to
submit a list of story ideas, and they can be the most
freaky, far-out, fantastic stories you've ever thought
"Elvis on the moon? Mermaids in space?
Vampires on Broadway?
"Not wild enough!!! We
want to get REALLLLLLLY WILD!!!!!!!!!"
might expect, these frequent whiplash-style reversals
took their toll on writers and editors alike and many
suddenly vanished into some kind of journalistic Devil's
Triangle. I stuck it out though, and at one time it
seemed as if I was almost the whole paper. Despite the
WWN global datelines - obscure European and South
American cities are popular - it's a very small staff
based in Boca Raton, Florida.
For a stint of
almost eight months, I was not only churning out
international exclusives, I was also a headshrinker's
dream; a multiple personality, tri-polar combo of
columnists Ed Anger (think rabid conservative
commentator Bill O'Reilly on meth), Dotti Primrose
(advice shrew Dr Laura on paint thinner) and Serena
Sabak ("America's Sexiest Psychic") and, for a brief
period of time while Serena was "in a coma" (she may
have been psychic, but she didn't foresee her tragic car
accident), her twin sister Sonya.
right-wing creation of the late editor-in-chief Eddie
Clontz, Ed Anger is perhaps the most revered and
well-known WWN columnist. Clontz also masterminded the
ELVIS IS ALIVE (and later, ELVIS DEAD AT 56) genre and
gave the world Bat Boy - a marauding half boy-half bat
who would go on to have a real off-Broadway show created
around the character. I arrived at WWN shortly after
Clontz had retired, but his brother, Derek, told me that
Ed Anger needed some sprucing up and gave me a shot at
Turned out that I was the fourth "Ed", and
while my results varied - it was hard to top Clontz's
lines like "The only good space alien is a dead space
alien" and "Let's pave the rainforests and give school
teachers stun guns!" - I was good enough, and the staff
was short-handed enough, that I also began editorially
cross-dressing as Serena and Dolly.
I also wrote
the horoscopes until one astute editor noted that many
of them were laced with snatches of oldies lyrics from
the likes of The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Moody Blues and
Pink Floyd. "Scorpio: Oct 23-Nov 21: If there's a bustle
in your hedgerow on Tuesday afternoon consider breaking
on through to the other side and breathe, breathe in the
air. Look around choose your own ground."
Dotti's and Serena's advice columns were similar
fiction. As directed, I made up the letters and the
answers until I was flaming out and asked to see if they
really got mail. I was hoping to kick-start some ideas.
Bad move. It was like asking to watch an autopsy or to
see how sausage is made. It turned out Dotti and Serena
got lots and lots of mail from lots and lots of people
who had no business grasping sharp, pointed objects like
pens and pencils. Here's an example, printed verbatim:
"Dear Serena, Please cast a spell for me to win
the lottera repeated lottera repeated [sic] so I can do
things and to have my husband dead [sic]. I also want
his mother dead so more money for me. God Bless You.
From Sunny California."
I bowed out of the
advice business shortly thereafter, but I can still
write a mean horoscope. Just go ask Alice. I think
(Copyright 2004 The Standard, Hong
Kong. All rights reserved. Used with
Jun 3, 2004
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