Moving robotlike in a supermarket checkout line, you'd perk up when you noticed that the magazine rack brandished the latest issue of the Weekly World News. Other tabloids would scream at you with the purported indiscretions of celebrities. But on the cover of WWN you'd see a headline so farfetched that it would instantly stick in your mind and be impossible to remove, like the ice pick in Trotsky's skull.
"Jimmy Hoffa Found in Elvis' Grave!"
"Space Alien Backs Bush for President!"
"Mental Supermen Lock in ESP Duel; Top Psychic's Head Explodes!"
"Saddam & Osama Adopt Shaved Ape Baby!"
"Meek Sue to Inherit the Earth!"
"Bigfoot Hooker Poses Nude for Centerfold!"
"Tribe Worships Camel Doodoo!"
Printed on tatty black-and-white stock, WWN was the journalistic guilty pleasure of the '80s and' 90s. And now it has nonetheless received an affectionate media sendoff. One writer called it "the newspaper of record for astrology and giant tumor-related news"; another, "easily the world's best drunken supermarket impulse buy." Bat Boy Lives!: The Weekly World News Guide to Politics, Culture, Celebrities, Alien Abductions, and the Mutant Freaks that Shape Our World, a 2005 book that compiled some of the paper's most shocking (i.e., silliest) stories, quotes Johnny Depp as saying, "The only gossip I'm interested in is in the Weekly World News." Which could be true.
ALIEN PAPER BORN IN FLORIDA!
WWN began as a spinoff of American Media Inc.'s National Enquirer a way of keeping the old presses running when the Enquirer switched to color. Though the staid name chosen for the paper suggested a down-market version of Foreign Affairs, it was for its first few years one more celebrity gossip rag. Then Eddie Clontz became editor, and WWN gleefully leapt into the quicksand of fake news. (Read all about the paper's history in a comprehensive Washington Post obit.)
Clontz pushed the tabloid tactic of exaggeration into distortion and then outright invention. No need for qualifying clauses on an implausible story; at WWN, innuendo went out the window. For the editors, Photoshop was their AP picture bank. For the writers, a wild imagination was their reporter's notebook. Other newsmen might be held to a two-source minimum; the WWN staff strictly adhered to a no-source minimum.
Which is not to say the paper didn't have traditional journalistic virtues. Its writers and editors, many of whom had come from more respectable venues, like The New York Times and the Philadelphia (not the National) Inquirer, were past masters at the fine craft of attention-grabbing. A headline like "Bloody Statue of Mother Teresa Has PMS!" would be topped by the deck "Vatican Experts Confirm:" and explained by the pull quote "After the blood stops, she gets grumpy." Those are teasers that should be taught in J school.
Within its ethic of fake, WWN constructed an impressive cosmology. It focused on nearly every aspect of world and otherworldly news. The paper ransacked Bible history, then rewrote it, from Genesis (the Garden of Eden's first lovers were Adam and Ed) to the Ten Commandments ("Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife" had the codicil "unless you in turn are willing to share thine own wife with him") to the Last Supper (where the main course was pizza). But the supreme WWN Biblical expos┤e, which I read in 1994, had a headline that read, as I recall, "Second Coming Came and Went!" The story reported that Jesus had returned as He'd promised and taken all the chosen souls back to Heaven with Him. The rest of us, the unchosen, might have thought we were still on Earth, but we were actually living in Hell.
The paper revealed more shocking historical secrets than The Da Vinci Code. It informed us that the seer Nostradamus had an idiot brother, Nostradumbass. One cover story declared that President Lincoln was actually a woman. The headline: "Abe Was a Babe!" In its approach to modern political issues, the paper was always pro-alien Martians, not Mexicans.