For a few years, usually when I had too much time and not enough sense, I thought about writing a weekly newspaper column. It would be a great catharsis of what I proudly knew to be a warped mind, fertilized now and then by my wife. With only 23,000 other columnists trying to pitch their own catharses, I figured there was room for another 700–800 words a week, especially since newspapers appeared to be desperate for features. How else could anyone explain why they publish celebrity gossip columns, horoscopes, and capsule summaries of soap operas? Thus was born, in August 1992, 15 years ago this month, “Wanderings,” a column that probes a small particle of society. Sometimes it’s humor or a biting satire; sometimes it’s a wistful essay or a hard-hitting investigative report.
My first column, which mixed politics and the media, a harbinger of more than 500 future columns, was a look at the tabloids in America, most of which were developing more credibility than the mainstream media. The focus was on presidential politics and the Weekly World News. The newspaper’s reporters and editors never took themselves seriously, never succumbing to the necessity, often overlooked by mainstream media, of fact-checking stories or the sin of salivating after self-congratulatory media awards, bestowed by the media themselves. The reporters, almost all of whom had extensive daily media experience, mixed in stories that were completely accurate, stories the major newspaper didn’t or wouldn’t cover, with a lot of believable fiction, which a gullible America wanted to believe. Editor Harold (Eddie) Clontz’s popular column, “Ed Anger,” allegedly written by someone who was filled with venom and hatred but which always had several grains of truth, predated radio and TV talk show blabbermouths.
The first issue of the News was in 1979; its last issue is this week, its circulation having dropped from a peak of more than 1.2 million in the mid-1980s to about 80,000 at its death. Part of that decline was because people could learn about Elvis, space aliens, and conspiracies on radio talk shows and from the Internet. A large part of that decline, however, was because a new management in 1999 had begun hiring comedy writers to write what they thought was news, and fired journalists who could write plausible stories with a comedic flair. The quality and campiness of the News rapidly declined into sophomoric humor.
During almost three decades, the Weekly World News, produced on a black-ink press during an era that saw the rise of splashy over-designed color and graphics, was a part of American culture. Its death should be mourned by Americans who rightfully believe they are not getting either the facts or the truth from the mainstream media. Below, in honor of the Weekly World News, is my first column.
When I don’t believe I’m getting all the news from the nation’s 1,450 daily newspapers, 6,700 community weeklies, 16,000 radio and TV stations, 20,000 magazines, or 170,000 books published every year, I turn to the supermarket tabloids for the truth.
Since most of the tabloid reporters worked on daily newspapers, and are earning $60,000–$100,000 in their new assignments, I place great credibility in what is being reported in the six major tabloids, all of them published in Boca Raton or Lantana, Florida, and which have a combined circulation of about 10 million.
From the tabloids, I can monitor where Elvis is this week, learn first about who is seen with whom, and which TV series is planning to replace which megastar, and more than anyone
ever needs to know about soap stars, none of this reported by the local press. I also know everything there is to know about Elizabeth Taylor, the Kennedys, the British royal family, Big Foot, and why taking coffee bean baths can perk you up. I have also learned about monkey-faced boys, dog-faced girls, human-faced pigs, an 8-year-old who gave birth to twins, a woman who gave birth to a litter of 12 children, a 28-year-old grandmother, a man who was pregnant, and a tribe in South America that found a cure for cancer.
From the 350,000-circulation Sun, in one week alone, I learned that a survivor of the Titanic spent 20 years on an iceberg, that there really is a flying elephant with jumbo ears who lives in Zaire, that a woman is turning into Marilyn Monroe, that scientists in Jerusalem found Goliath’s mummified head, and that miracles occur near a Florida tree that has the face of Christ.
The establishment media also don’t report much about house hauntings, psychic revelations, reincarnations, and extraterrestrials. However, all are conscientiously reported by the tabloids, and all for a buck or so a week.
In just one issue of the 722,000-circulation Weekly World News, this week alone, I learned that condoms cause breast cancer, that a 7,000-year-old gargantuan shark patrols Lake Superior, that Hitler was really a woman who survived World War II and died in 1992 in Buenos Aires at the age of 103, and that a spaceship (with 14 perfectly preserved extraterrestrial corpses) was found in the Gobi Desert. More importantly, I learned that a friendly space alien, not too unlike E. T., declared his (her? its?) support for Bill Clinton for the presidency. A photo on page 1 showed the smooth-skinned, large-headed, long-fingered, unclothed alien shaking hands with the Democratic Presidential nominee after a 40-minute super-secret visit in Madison Square Garden during the Democratic National Convention.
It wasn’t the first scoop for the News. In May, the newspaper had reported that the alien visited George Bush at Camp David; in July, it reported the alien stopped by Dallas for a chat with Ross Perot who, apparently taking the alien’s advice, soon dropped out of the race. Pictures also accompanied these articles, thus proving the alien’s existence. We learned that the alien—who came from the most successful planet in the universe—gave Gov. Clinton advice on health and environmental issues as well as how to turn the economy around. The alien’s mission—other than to evaluate and recommend a candidate for the confused American masses, most of whom would vote for the alien over any of the presidential candidates—was to seek “trade concessions that would benefit his home planet,” according to reliable sources who talked with the Weekly World News.
The major news media, obviously jealous they were scooped on the biggest news story of the decade, called the story a hoax. To get to the truth, I made a few phone calls.
A member of the White House staff said she believed that President Bush may have made several light-hearted comments about the visit of the alien, but referred me to another office for confirmation. An official spokesman for the President at first indicated he didn’t know what I was talking about when I asked about the space alien. After informing him of this late-breaking news, he said he didn’t think the President made any comments about “that alleged meeting.” He then informed me that “as far as we’re concerned,” there was no meeting, thus confirming my belief that if the White House says it didn’t occur, it probably did occur.
On to Bill Clinton’s team. Being the hard-hitting investigative journalist that I am, I had to get confirmation, if not from the Governor, certainly from an official spokesperson. Did you ever try to find an official spokesperson when you need one? After three days of phone calls, all I had was a lot of conversations with a pack of confused but obviously arrogant campaign officials who couldn’t or wouldn’t confirm or deny anything. All, it seemed, were so full of themselves, unlike their boss, that none had room for any sense of humor. Obviously, the Clinton team was more impressed with themselves, and the possibility they may one day be able to walk into the White House without a tourist pass, than in revealing the truth.
To clear up the confusion, I contacted Eddie Clontz, editor of the Weekly World News. Eddie’s a pleasant fellow and an excellent journalist who worked for several years as a reporter and wire editor at the St. Petersburg Evening Independent.
He did his best to keep a straight face, but he and I both knew it was going to take a bigger actor than him to pull that one off.
“We had been working the story for a year,” said Eddie who revealed that the newspaper received the tip from “some of our people in the military.” He said that credible sources “often don’t call regular newspapers because the dailies take it as a joke or will treat it as such,” thus confirming my suspicions that daily newspaper reporters are more concerned with trivial pursuits than they are with news of interplanetary consequence.
The photos, Eddie said, were submitted by one of the newspaper’s sources. A true journalist, he wouldn’t reveal a confidence. He did confirm that the newspaper plans to follow the alien’s travels through the country, but probably won’t be tracking either George Bush or Bill Clinton. Their lives just weren’t as important, or as interesting, as that of an intelligent life form from another planet. “We don’t get into political coverage unless it has to do with a space alien,” the newspaper’s editor slyly said.
Now, for the big question. Does Eddie Clontz, editor of a newspaper with larger circulation than all but the top five American dailies, believe in the alien? “I really don’t think so,” he said, noting that although “the photographs look real to me, as a skeptic I’d say it’s not true.” Actually, he also called the existence of the alien “preposterous.”
In every political campaign, there is always something to break the tension, something to lighten up a campaign that tires out candidates, staff, reporters, and voters. This year, it’s the alien’s visit with the candidates. Next campaign, maybe it will be coverage of the alien’s race for the Presidency.
[Eddie Clontz, editor from 1981 to 2001, died three years later at the age of 56. Walter Brasch’s latest books are America’s Unpatriotic Acts: The Federal Government’s Violation of Constitutional and Civil Rights and ‘Unacceptable’: The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina . Forthcoming is Sinking the Ship of State: The Presidency of George W. Bush . You may contact Dr. Brasch through his website, www.walterbrasch.com or at firstname.lastname@example.org]