Wednesday, August 01, 2007

A dark day in American journalism

Remember this day, August 1, 2007. On this day, an announcement came that signaled the pending demise of an important journalistic era in our nation's history.

A daring, incisive and independent news source, bold enough to tell their stories their way is about to fade into history.

No, I'm not talking about the Wall Street Journal, which is about to be swallowed by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. Old conservative hag buys old conservative rag. Big deal. The silver lining in that takeover is that perhaps the WSJ reporters will be able to show Old Man Murdoch how real journalism is done. Unfortunately, the Australian trashmonger will likely just glance over the real news and go right to the infantile Opinion Journal page.

No. This is most certainly not about The Journal. Rather, this is about another journalistic entity, about to end an era.

Sadly, the Weekly World News is about to take a dirt nap.

The Weekly World News? You mean that obnoxious tabloid at the checkout lane? The one with all the crazy headlines? The one with Bat Boy? Yep, that's the one! And the paper's publisher, American Media Inc. (AMI), announced in a brief statement today that the August 27 issue would be their last. According to AMI, the closure is necessary "due to the challenges in the retail and wholesale magazine marketplace that have impacted the newsstand." Or something like that.

There was no word from AMI as to whether aliens, Bigfoot, Osama bin Laden or Elvis were to blame.

So, what the heck kind of mindset spawned this publication anyway? For that, we need to go back to 1952, when Generoso Pope, Jr. purchased The National Enquirer, allegedly with mob money. Pope did an overhaul of the paper, switching from the standard newspaper broadsheet style to a tabloid. To placate his Mafia benefactors, he published winning lottery numbers and avoided stories about mob activities. He also published lurid and gory stories, with nasty headlines like "Mom Boiled Her Baby And Ate Her!" When he came up with the idea to sell the Enquirer at the supermarket checkout lane (a.k.a. the impulse purchase isle), he toned down the shock value a bit, shifting focus to celebrities, UFO's and various weird news stories.

Circulation grew over the years, and competitors sprang out of the woodwork. In 1979, the Enquirer started publication on brand spankin' new color presses. Of course, the move would leave some perfectly good black-and-white presses totally unused. What were they going to do with them? Well, somewhere in the building, some depraved soul came up with the idea of doing a self-parody tabloid, a kind of throwback to the glory days of the Enquirer and other tabloids, which had by now shifted their focus to celebrity gossip and drivel for desperate housewives across the land.

Of course, the new venture, dubbed the Weekly World News, wouldn't take itself too seriously. It was all just a joke. From the ridiculous and absurd headlines, revisionist history, the 'Page 5' bikini girl, countless doomsday predictions by psychics and a fixation on all things having to do with aliens, Bigfoot, Elvis, Satan, mutants, Hitler, etc., topped off by the audacity to use slogans such as "nothing but the truth" and "America's most reliable newspaper."

If the lurid headlines and stories were a bit too much to grasp, there was original editorial writing as well. Some may remember ultra-ultra-conservative Ed Anger, a guy who hates whales, vegetarians, the environment and yoga and makes Michael Savage look like a flaming lefty (which he probably secretly is, but that's another story for another time). The Economist magazine once described Anger's writing as, "so vitriolically right-wing that (it) possibly came from the left."

And then there was Dear Dottie, the downright rude advice columnist who dished out vulgar insults in lieu of advice (the forerunner to Dr. Laura?).

Of course, this being a supermarket rag, there were astrologers and psychics galore. How many times was the world supposed to end anyway?

Oh, and did I mention the cannibal food critic? Well, I'd better not.

Obviously, there's a big difference between typical news media and the WWN. David Perel, the paper's executive vice president, quoted the introduction of the official book about the paper:

A guy calls up The New York Times and says “My toaster’s talking to me,” The New York Times hangs up on him. And then he calls us up and says, “My toaster’s talking.” We say, “OK. Put the toaster on. We want to talk to him.”

Yes indeed, the Weekly World News is headed for the big checkout lane in the sky. Elvis may or may not still be alive, but The News will be no more. The paper geared toward readers who had outgrown Mad Magazine. The precursor to The Onion. Sure, it may seem quaint and ridiculous, and its headlines predictable and cliche, but it was also an example of a newspaper that wasn't above making fun of itself. And that's a quality too often absent in our modern-day arrogant media. At least The News let us in on the joke.

In an era where much of what's being reported by the news media far too often resembles that of the supermarket tabloids, at least The News showed how ridiculous it all is. Perhaps they were "America's most reliable newspaper."


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