The Late Great Weekly World News

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Paul Buck / EPA

Dawn Leffler (L), Colette Stevens (C) and Dasha Guillam (R) enjoy the last issue of Weekly World News while relaxing in the sand in Manhattan Beach, California.

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The primacy of truth, or verifiable fact, has taken a beating lately in mass culture; hardly anyone bothers with the distinction between info and tainment. "Reality shows" are as scripted as any World Wrestling Federation slamdown. The "Alien Autopsy" TV documentary of the mid-90s was a hoax; so was the Internet's "lonelygirl15." Art Bell, on the overnight radio show Coast to Coast A.M., lavished air time on hundreds of antichrists and alien abductees, and 10 million listeners tuned in to these ghost stories in the dark.

The Internet has opened the floodgates of unverified assertion. The top news source is Wikipedia, whose compilers are free to create or distort any fact. Corrections are made only if someone more responsible weighs in. Mike Godwin, the new chief counsel for Wikipedia, shrugs off the inaccuracies, some of them defamatory, on his website. "In another 25 years," he told The New York Times last week, "all of our children will have grown up in a world in which media like these are mutable and changeable and people prank each other, and it will seem less important." By "it" Godwin means facts — what we used to know as the truth.

Stephen Colbert formed the word "truthiness," but decades before, WWN was the original friend of faux. It played the truthiness game at world-class level, as a joke on its readers and the rest of the media. Touting itself as "The World's Only Reliable Newspaper," WWN pioneered the notion of straight-faced news comedy. Yes, Saturday Night Live had inaugurated its "Weekend Update" in 1975, but the tactic there — as in the Brit and U.S. versions of That Was the Week That Was, in the 60s, and The Daily Show and The Colbert Report today — was essentially a real headline with a sarcastic joke attached. WWN went further: the headlines were the jokes, utterly fabricated, designed to amuse some readers and confuse others.

Amuse-confuse was in the air in the late 70s and early 80s. In the comedy clubs, performers like Albert Brooks, Andy Kaufman, Harry Shearer and Art Metrano were blazing the conceptual trail of "post-funny comedy." Kaufman would play the Mighty Mouse theme on an old phonograph, or read long passages from The Great Gatsby, or assume the guise of obnoxious Tony Clifton, all to the discomfort of an audience who might have come to hear jokes. Metrano donned a tux and sang, endlessly, the old razzmatazz "Fine and Dandy," but only the notes: "Da da DA da, da Da da DA DA..." Squirms outnumbered giggles; perplexity ensued. If someone asked, "Is that supposed to be funny?" the comics had achieved their goal.

WWN twisted their ploy into the more daring "Is that supposed to be true?" More daring because its audience comprised not the putative hipsters in comedy clubs but ordinary people waiting to pay for their groceries and not used to finding irony in. In a word, Americans.

Satire is essentially political; it builds an Us-vs.-Them dialectic and aims its barbs at Them. The reader or listener is expected both to get the joke and to agree with its political thrust. For example, the audiences for The Daily Show and Colbert, are part of the shows' (basically left-wing) Us, laughing at the (basically right-wing) Them who are the butts of the jokes. WWN recognized no such niceties. It tore down that wall. It ripped not just at the goofiness of pop culture but at its own readers' prurience and gullibility. ("Redneck Vampire Attacks Trailer Park.") The main audience for this satire was not those who might laugh at it but those who might take it as true. "It is my belief," Derek Clontz told the Post, "that in the '80s and into the '90s, most people believed most of the material most of the time."

It was one small step from WWN ("America's Only Reliable Newspaper") to The Onion ("America's Finest News Source"). Soon the Onion staff found jobs as writers or producers on Late Night With David Letterman, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and were festooned with Emmys and movie deals. But the hip mainstream ignored the WWN writers; they continued to toil away anonymously in American Media Inc.'s Boca Raton, Fla., home office, whose most severe brush with notoriety was during the anthrax attacks of Sept. 2001, when a photo editor opened an envelope containing the bacteria and was killed. And that was no joke.


American Media's reason for closing down the paper was that the paper's circulation had dropped from over a million in its late-'80s-early-'90s heyday to a current circulation under 100,000. Old-time staffers complain the paper's quality went in the commode when the veterans were replaced by young comedy writers. But the real explanation, I think, is that fake news has spread beyond The Onion and the satirical TV shows to the front pages of the most distinguished newspapers. Over the past six years we've read such headlines as:

Saddam Caused 9/11 Attacks!

It's Crystal Clear: Sunnis Love Shias!

U.S. to Be Greeted as Liberators in Iraq!

Iraq OK in Just a Few More Months!

Kerry No War Hero!

Global Warming a Hoax!

The New York Times, Fox News, The Weekly Standard: these are the Weekly World News of our time.

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