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An alien ate my brain
By Justin Mitchell

HONG 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 stories.

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!"

It's 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 FIGURES."

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.

Au 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!"

"HEY 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.

"The more 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.

"We want 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.

"Readers 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 up.

"Elvis on the moon? Mermaids in space? Vampires on Broadway?

"Not wild enough!!! We want to get REALLLLLLLY WILD!!!!!!!!!"

As one 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.

The blustering 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 it.

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 she'll know.

(Copyright 2004 The Standard, Hong Kong. All rights reserved. Used with permission.)

Jun 3, 2004


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