Posted by: coloradokiwi | September 19, 2007

A Belated Obituary: Why we needed the Weekly World News

I come to this late, but hey, even losers have shit to do.

I would like to take the time to mark the passing of one our greatest journalistic institutions, which boasted, deserverdly, of the title “The World’s Only Reliable Newspaper”: The Weekly World News. Yes, as of August 27, after 28 years of gracing supermarket checkouts, this paper was retired in its print form by parent company AMI in order for the company to focus on celebrity weeklies and lifestyle magazines [[sidebar–focus? Making up stories about celebs and paying papparazzi for damning photos requires “focus”??]]. Sure, the WWN is still available online, but it just isn’t the same. Who among us didn’t feel slightly warmed by the sight of its large print, boldly monochrome pulp pages detailing the secret life of Elvis, or the shenanigans of aliens, or, most famously, the arduous saga of Bat Boy? Amidst all the sniping, the gossip, the constant deification and demonization of famously beautiful nitwits, there was the Weekly World News delivering in-depth investigations behind the REAL causes of various catastrophies, crazed prophecies, and simply batshit (no pun intended) insane headlines. It always brigtened my day, made me laugh.

Now, others have written their own obituaries, providing the sorts of sentiments I have just written above. Indeed, when the sad news was announced many respectable publications printed love letters to this crazy little paper, their mourning clearly indicating a deep-seeded jealousy–in his heart of hearts, after all, David Gregory would much prefer to be covering Elvis sightings than his White House beat, I’m sure. However, I would like to push my lament at the WWN’s retreat to the online world much further than any obit I’ve thus far read. I believe that we’re going to miss the WWN more than we know it, and that it served a VERY IMPORTANT function in our mediascape, Bat Boy and all.

First of all, the marvelously bizarre world of the WWN cannot be dismissed as “merely” crazy little stories for entertainment value. Like all good satire and absurdity, its otherworldliness shed light onto, I daresay even critiqued, our society. Sure, Elvis sightings don’t sound like much of a critique, but think about what really makes that interesting and funny. First of all, it’s having a bit of fun with the obsessive nature of celebrity worship–Elvis was so revered by fans, even when he was a fat, surly, drug addict, that many, many people refused to believe that he actually died. Keep in mind, this wasn’t about Elvis releasing more music that they enjoyed, it was the mere fact that he LIVED. How different is this, really, from some quasi-deification, a seriously committed form of faith and servitude toward a shared, higher being? I’m not saying people actually worshipped Elvis. I’m saying some people needed him to transcend death in order for their own lives to have (more? some?) meaning. And this need extended, granted to a much lesser extent, to society at large. But the joke didn’t stop there, of course. The real hilarity of Elvis sightings were their utter mundaneness: Elvis pumping gas for a living, and so forth. The “funny” here is that Elvis is alive and well, and rather than mount a comeback, he lives in relative obscurity as a schmoe–whether by choice or circumstance, it is somewhat unclear. The humor of this is ultimately satirizing our notion of celebrity, and how people become (and continue to be) famous. All of this is of course bound up in a kind of paradoxical longing: there is nonetheless genuine affection there for the King.

While one could argue that today’s gossip mags have kernals of satire along these lines, wherein we have to match the cottage cheese ass with a well known beauty, I don’t think this is at all the same. First off, it’s regular old schadenfreude–somehow it’s meaner than the Elvis sightings–there’s little affection there. Secondly, this gossip (and all the other kinds of gossip in these tabloids) takes celebrities and their lives somewhat seriously. Oh sure, it’s fun to poke fun at their lives, whether the information is accurate or not. But the downright crazy of the WWN approach leaves no room for doubt that this is fun, satirical, absurd. Whereas the WWN is poking fun at celebrity worship, the tabloids treat seriously the notion that we should invest some energy in knowing all about these people.

This leads to perhaps one of the most important aspects of the WWN’s content that will sorely be missed: the every day, the non-famous. That is to say, most of the content had nothing to do with Elvis sightings, it had to do with the bizarre and intimately human (or not) lives of every day people. Although there is indeed an element of lower class freaksploitation akin to Jerry Springer or Maury Povich, ultimately when you read the stories there’s an underlying affection for the WWN’s subjects. Sure, you might have a 200 lb. two-year old, you horrible parent, but hey–what does it feel like? Although Bat Boy plumbed the depths of the abject, he was also the subject of heart-rending sympathy, a persecuted creature. There were also stories that, while not specifically about freaks and anally probed hillbillies, were about regular people living regular lives and thrown into crazy circumstance. In short: primarily the WWN featured that most homely, that most heimlich of people, the at once scorned and celebrated Average American. The volk of this great, yet fucking crazy nation. Wal-Mart shoppers. You know: ‘mer’kins. Just like with Elvis, the WWN’s crazy stories about regular people were filled with a kind of timeless affection for the trials and tribulations of Joe Sixpack and his kin.

This is important. How many media texts can we name in which Average Americans even appear? Media critics treat this notion seriously, because it has an impact on our perception of the real state of the economy and society. Critiques have been mounted for years that television, in particular, depicts the lives of Average Americans as people who live in what is essentially the Cosby template home: a huge fucking house and problems that only get about as serious as little Billy’s wet dream. There’s no talk of mortgages, or affording college, or having accidents, or even more alarming trends in our society: the uptick in two income households, rising personal debt, and the shrinking middle class, as well as myriad other problems. This skewed picture may also instill in us something even more vile: the notion that “all of us” should have–no, must have the things those people on TV have (perhaps the sub-prime lending fiasco is blowback against this sort of mythmaking?).

If you’re a real Average American, you can relate to the problems of the folks who populate the WWN’s pages. Not literally, of course. But the subtext of these stories carries with it a kind of truism of American life, however funny and absurd the general thrust of the story may be. And now we are met with a grim irony: the one space in which Average Americans only are found (not celebrities or politicians), the supermarket checkout, is now a space in which the tabloids have only celebrities featured on their pages–people who would not be caught dead at the supermarket checkout.

Finally, I would like to end with a defense of the actual journalism that really could be found in the WWN’s pages. However racy the headline, occasionally there appeared a news item which was accurately reported. I know this not only because of the occasional glance through this paper (although that certainly applies). I know this because the WWN once reported something that I experienced directly.

I went to a small, rural high school. In my senior year, we got a new principal. As is traditional for the first day of school, we had an assembly wherein faculty would give us a bit of a pep talk about pride and hard work and the usual rigamorole. Our new principal decided to really get our attention this year and talk about diversity. Now, aside from two black students and a handful of hispanic students, our high school was about as diverse a landscape as the polar ice cap. So–how to celebrate diversity? Well, this man’s brilliant scheme was to bring two girls to the front of the assembly–one very busty, the other one very not–and said “Now touch your elbows together,” the effect being that each girl would have to stick out her chest. At the time this of course elicited hoots and laughter (it was high school) but also gasps of shock. WTF?!!!

Needless to say this created a bit of a scandal, and after about a week our new principal was removed from his post. During that week, various news outlets from around the country badgered teachers and students to get information about the details of what transpired in that assembly. Since the teachers were under media blackout, these intrepid journalists scouted around for details of the case from various students and, I presume, parents. Our little high school was featured in blurbs of the “news of the weird” variety, and became a national story. However, everywhere I looked I saw a story that barely corresponded to what actually took place. And then one day I opened up the Weekly World News. Under a rather typically WWN headline (something along the lines of “New Principal Requires Public Breast Exams”) was the story. And do you know what? They reported it accurately. VERY accurately. In fact, the WWN was the only media outlet to accurately report the story, or to even come close.

This was a revelation. And although I was not entirely trusting of the MSM before, I learned that not only did various biases leak into the news (duh), I learned that it might be commonplace for them to report on rumor and hearsay. And yes, the WWN reported that Hillary Clinton had adopted an alien baby. But it also got the story about the lives of Average Americans right. Not just isolated stories about Average Americans, mind you–the story of Average Americans.

So, so long Weekly World News. The satire, the humor, the commitment to the highly uncommon amidst the lives of the common folk, will be sorely missed.

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Responses

  1. Well … point taken. Let me begin the discussion thus: did the girls touch their elbows together? And then did they kiss? Were their shirts wet?

  2. They were supposed to touch their OWN elbows together. But they WERE back to back. No wet shirts. Er, THEN.


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