Eddie Clontz, last of the two-fisted editors, is at it again, roaring orders to his faithful staff at the Weekly World News. ”You!” he cries to one of his senior associates, rich hints of North Carolina buttering his voice. ”Finish laying out that page, or I’ll suck your eyeballs right out of your skull!” The staff, of course, has heard it all before, and they keep on working, their computer screens alive with the kinds of headlines that make the tabloid famous: GURU CHOKES TO DEATH EATING LIVE SCORPIONS! CHICAGO MOM GIVES BIRTH TO 7-LB. EYEBALL! LIBERACE IS ALIVE!
But Clontz refuses to be be ignored. ”Julie,” he shouts to senior editor Julia McKnight. ”What are you working on?”
”Hoover!” she yells back.
That makes Clontz happy. He had demanded a J. Edgar Hoover story, and now he’s getting it — something much better, dammit, than the same old, tired Hoover-was-gay report every other paper carried: ”J. Edna Hoover,” he crows, a satisfied grin splitting his face. ”Hoover was a woman!”
It’s easy to spot the Weekly World News. Just head for your local supermarket or convenience store and look for the tabloid screaming in fearless black and white: LOCH NESS MONSTER HAS A BABY! FARMER SHOOTS 6-FT. BUTTERFLY! WOMAN KILLED BY FUR COAT! Your Uncle Elmer will tell you that these stories aren’t true — even though every Weekly World News cover is documented with an astounding photo! But really, the Weekly World News (which sells just under 700,000 copies in an average week) is not so much a newspaper as an old-time carnival sideshow, complete with
*Freaks: 2-HEADED MOTHER AND HER 2-HEADED BABY!”
*Funny Animals: ”Meet the elephant who thinks he’s a dog! Wacky pachy chases cars and chews on bones!”
*Morbid Curiosities: ROAD-KILL QUEEN: ”She crunches critters with her car — then turns them into tasty meals! Another recession buster!”
This madness was launched in 1979 almost literally as a sideshow, or more precisely, as a spin-off from The National Enquirer, which had shifted to color printing and didn’t want its black-and-white presses sitting idle. At first the infant offshoot printed stale celebrity gossip, but when that didn’t catch on, it revived the I HAD BIGFOOT’S BABY! tabloid tales the improved Enquirer would no longer touch. Notoriety struck in 1988, when the News became the first publication to claim Elvis really was alive, thus creating an indelible strain of American folklore. And last summer the paper reaped its biggest media bonanza by intervening in the presidential race. A space alien, or so the News blared in the first of three successively wilder stories, visited President Bush at Camp David two years ago. The alien then talked economics with Ross Perot and seemed to like him — but after making a secret trip to the Democratic convention, apparently changed its mind and decided to endorse Bill Clinton instead.
When the Perot story came out, Bush was quick to grab onto its coattails and lament the alien’s defection, saying, ”I thought he was for me all along.” Clinton posed with a copy of the News and laughingly bragged, ”I want you to know I’m broadening my base.” When the alien subsequently exposed five U.S. senators as fellow extraterrestrials, Georgia’s Sam Nunn, one of the five, deadpanned, ”I’m almost positive there are more.” By this time, in addition to its regular readers, the paper had won a cult following that stretches from college campuses to MTV, which couldn’t resist featuring a dozen or so Weekly World News items on its otherwise serious news reports. ”Everyone here loves this paper,” says Michael Shore, managing editor of MTV News. ”They create something absurd, then take it an extra step beyond.”
And they do that with a staff of just 19 people, who occupy one small corner of the National Enquirer building in sunny Lantana, Fla., mostly having the time of their lives.
Senior editor Susan Jimison, for instance, sits at her desk with photos purporting to show Amelia Earhart (whom, last April, the paper had reported alive at age 95 on a South Pacific island) arriving in the U.S. for secret heart surgery. Jimison, a tall, weathered woman with a wicked smile, drifted into tabloid journalism after a ’60s-style career in political activism and the arts. Even after 10 years at the News she still twinkles when she talks about her work.
”I have to bring Amelia Earhart back—” she starts to say, then corrects herself. ”That is, we have information that Amelia Earhart is coming back to the U.S.” Who’s her source? ”Capt. Brian Bruton, an Australian adventurer.” How does she contact Captain Bruton? ”He keeps in touch. Hey, what do you think I’m doing? Making these things up?”
Of the photos — which might look just a little more posed than most news photography — Jimison will only say, ”We shot them at a private airfield in California.” But in fact the News takes a strange kind of care with its stories, as Julia McKnight, who’s new at the News after years in mainstream journalism and corporate finance, is finding with her Hoover assignment. Her informant, she confides with an admirably straight face, was a pathologist at Hoover’s autopsy, who quite naturally wouldn’t want his name to be used. But wait! Suppose some, er, other pathologist, one whose presence at the autopsy was a matter of public record, objected to the story and sued?
She needs another angle. Not that the News cares whether anyone contradicts anything it prints. Sure, the Mobile, Ala., police complained about a story that claimed they’d captured a werewolf, but so what? Would you expect them to admit something like that? A lawsuit, though, would be serious. The paper has never been sued, partly because its writers and editors never name identifiable people as sources for stories they’d be likely to deny.
A few desks down, white-haired Jack Alexander demonstrates another tabloid technique — making stories so vivid you can practically smell them. He was city editor of The St. Petersburg Evening Independent before coming out of retirement to work at the News, and now he’s reshaping copy from one of the countless papers the News mines for material. Today’s item is about an Israeli who spent 30 years in jail because he wouldn’t give his wife a divorce. Alexander, unabashedly taking sides, calls the guy ”pigheaded.”
”I’m just saying what I would have thought to myself, writing the story anywhere else,” he cheerfully rumbles. ”I just write what any reader would think.”
Alexander next reports how he got choked up when interviewing people for a story about a dying cowboy who’d asked to be buried ”standing tall in his grave.” As he tells this, it’s suddenly clear that the Weekly World News is much more than aliens and MTV. It’s one of the few media outlets left that talks in the plainspoken, outraged, but also sentimental voice of America’s heartland.
That’s where Eddie Clontz comes in. His managing editor, Sal Ivone — a quick, intense veteran of two New York tabloids, the Post and the Daily News — champions the paper’s hip, young cult following (which he estimates to be 30 percent of its readership). But Clontz, 45, who once wrote for more mundane newspapers elsewhere in the South, speaks to the trailer parks. ”I’m not college-educated or anything like that,” he chuckles, with almost shy simplicity. ”But I enjoy the Weekly World News. I’m one of the few people in tabloids who would read the paper even if I didn’t work here.”
This manic populism explains the paper’s columnists, including advice guru ”Dear Dotti,” who insults half her correspondents (”You DID sleep your way to the top, dirtbag, and if you’ve got any integrity at all, you’ll quit!”), and Ed Anger, the Weekly World News‘ answer to Rush Limbaugh, who tilts so far to the political right he falls over the edge.
”I’m madder than Santa Claus with bubble gum in his beard over a recent news report that BB-gun sales are down,” he’ll write. ”What the hell is this great country coming to when a kid can’t go out in the backyard and bag a few sparrows on Christmas morning?” Is this some kind of parody? Clontz, with a sly smile, allows that Anger may ”paint himself into a corner” each time he writes. Anger himself, or so Clontz improbably claims, is ”too shy” to submit to an interview and — like Dotti and the paper’s sexy psychic, Serena Sabak — proves as hard to track down as Bill Clinton’s alien. But talk to Eddie Clontz’s bearded brother, Derek (the assistant managing editor), and you’ll find he has an almost supernatural bond with Dotti and Serena. Spend time with Eddie — watch him rage at the very thought of putting a yuppie computer on his desk (he’d rather grind out copy on a typewriter that looks as if it fought World War II) — and you’ll see Ed Anger spring to life before your eyes.