Fake news meets its fate
Vail CO, Colorado
L.A. Times-Washington Post News Service
“U.S. Paying Space Aliens to Find and Destroy Bin Laden!” This vital news story was shockingly overlooked by every major newspaper in America ” except one: the Weekly World News. Those other papers also left their readers uninformed about how the White House put out a hit on Michael Moore, why a judge ordered a vasectomy for an oversexed hamster and how a woman exploded after constantly being told, “You da bomb!”
I wrote all those stories and hundreds more for the Weekly World News during the last five years. But the tabloid’s days as a supermarket-aisle staple are numbered: Publishing company American Media has announced that it will stop printing the newspaper (though keep a Web site) on Aug. 27.
When my career as a stand-up comedian and sitcom staff writer started winding down, I took on a number of freelance comedy-writing jobs ” writing jokes for Jack-FM stations, for other comedians and for Cracked magazine. My Cracked editor went to work for the WWN and invited me to contribute stories. Before long, I had five or more stories in each issue. Fake news was my day job. Imagine my mother’s pride: “‘France Makes Hanky Panky Mandatory’ . . . my son wrote that!”
I was, at first, confused about whether I was supposed to write true offbeat news, general satire or complete fabrication. So I asked. The response was loud and clear: “complete fabrication.” (In case this wasn’t clear, the paper started running a disclaimer in 2004: “The reader should suspend disbelief for the sake of enjoyment.”)
Yet each piece was written as if completely real. So when, for example, Bigfoot got married, launched his acting career and became involved with Kabbalah, each story got a dateline, quotes from “sources” and “experts” and followed a typical Associated Press structure. In fact, much of the original staff came from mainstream newspapers. The standard? It had to seem true.
“Half the readers realize the stories are tongue-in-cheek; the other half believe they’re all true,” my editor explained. “You have to write the stories to satisfy both groups.”
Still, I often wondered about the half of the readers who considered the WWN a legitimate news publication. Did they find papers like the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal too dull? Too realistic? Could these folks be the ones who enjoy pork rinds, attend monster truck rallies, elect our president?
The Weekly World News, sold primarily in supermarkets but also by subscription, first appeared in 1979. American Media, in essence, created it as a means to continue profiting from its black-and-white printing press after its high-profile tabloid, The National Enquirer, began publishing in full color.
While most of the supermarket tabloids constantly recycle one another’s celebrity gossip and diet plans, the WWN went unashamedly for the bizarre, unbelievable and tasteless. For any creative writer, the gig was a gold mine. Inspiration was everywhere. One day I wondered just exactly how snug is a bug in a rug? Shortly thereafter, I sold “Researcher Determines Snugness of Bugs in Rugs” to the WWN.
Photoshop was the graphic department’s best friend. On their pages, Elvis lived, Bat Boy rode atop subway cars, and space aliens shook hands with world leaders. Explorers discovered Noah’s ark, the Garden of Eden, Jesus’ sandals and the world’s fattest cat. They had just as much fun with the less spectacular news items. For one of mine, “African Tribe Worships Barbra Streisand’s Nose,” they created a gigantic stone statue of Streisand’s head in profile to show off her famed schnoz and surrounded it with spear-toting natives in loincloths.
During the 1992 presidential election campaign, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton were depicted meeting with P’Lod, a space alien the paper later named as Hillary Clinton’s lover. Bush got a hearty laugh from the article. Clinton held his copy up at a campaign stop and joked that it proved his campaign had “universal” appeal. The next issue featured photos of both candidates reading the WWN ” for once running pictures that had not been doctored.
The WWN was the progenitor of what is now an entire fake-news genre, including the Onion and “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.” Its imprint on pop culture extended to off-Broadway, where “Bat Boy: The Musical” was a hit. And it was immortalized in the 1997 film “Men in Black,” in which Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) called the WWN the “best damn investigative reporting on the planet.”
Well, the WWN is soon to be gone, and for that, we are all diminished. OK, maybe just I am diminished. I know my bank account is diminished. Apparently, the WWN’s bank account is diminished as well.
American Media spokesman Richard Valvo blamed the “challenges in the retail and wholesale magazine marketplace that have impacted the newsstand.” The company reported a $160 million net loss for 2006 and is struggling with $1 billion of debt and plummeting circulation. It said in an SEC filing in March that sales of the WWN dropped to 83,000 in 2006. In the 1980s, the circulation peaked at 1.2 million.
Perhaps the downturn is cause for some optimism: Maybe fewer people these days would believe another of my stories, “Bush’s Plan to Protect the White House: Paint It Black.”
But one thing’s certain ” waiting in line at the supermarket will be a lot less fun.
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