Weekly World News, the outrageous supermarket tabloid, is no more. Yet its demise has been marked with national media coverage—more than was given to the deaths of former French Prime Minister Raymond Barre and many a worthy American citizen. I, too, shed half a tear for WWN.
You see, my hands are not clean. I once made a living on the dark side of journalism. I was the founding editor of The National Examiner, a shelf-mate and in time a stable-mate of the dearly departed WWN.
The time was l965 and the place, New York. Generoso Pope was allegedly making millions publishing The National Enquirer, and many quite shady publishers were out to get some of that loot.
Easily the most interesting publisher, and possibly the most reprehensible, was Bob Harrison. He had fled to New York from Los Angeles, where he had published Confidential, the notorious magazine, and in some measure had contributed to the establishment of the paparazzi. Harrison had organized a team of photographers to penetrate the private lives of celebrities, preferably in their bedrooms. The magazine prospered but the lawsuits proliferated. And Harrison was looking for a safe harbor in which to be outrageous.
In New York, Harrison had found the solution to the problem of libel: He would invent the stories and the people. Nothing would be true. Not one word. Photographs would be of ordinary people but for safety, these would savagely doctored.
Harrison had invented an art form that would be copied by others, most notably WWN. There would be extraordinary, unverifiable events; communications from the grave, 100-year-old mothers, midgets no bigger than teacups, and endless crimes and atrocities attributed to unidentified mob figures.
Even in his mob stories, Harrison was careful. Identifications were so vague that no one ever knew which mob. And he identified the mobs in a way that would not offend real mobsters. Harrison’s perpetrators and victims were in a parallel world: They could not be traced because they never existed. Safer that way.
The best of Harrison’s writers was an enormously prolific editor at The New York Times, Ernest Tidyman. He later moved to Hollywood, where he wrote the screenplay for “The French Connection.”
Tidyman’s success as schlock writer was that he got little things right, giving an air of authenticity to the great fiction. He was greatly helped in this endeavor by The New York Times’s library. In one Harrison-Tidyman fiction, an underworld figure ordered the amputation of a rival’s leg in a love triangle. Tidyman researched the medical possibilities of hacking off a leg without the victim dying from shock or bleeding to death.
One of Tidyman’s more intriguing tales was about a drifter who traveled the country, clinging to the underside of freight train cars. It was a possible but unlikely physical feat. Good enough for a Harrison-owned tabloid. Harrison differed from other publishers of his milieu, who tended to have a whiff of the low life. Not Bob. He bought his clothes at F.R. Tripler & Company, the distinguished New York men’s store, and affected a breezy, just-off-the yacht demeanor. He attended fashionable Upper East Side parties and was vague about his “publications,” hinting that he was an academic publisher. When I ran into him at a very posh soiree, he touched his index finger to his lips. What happened in schlock stayed in schlock.
The publisher of The National Examiner was cut from a different bolt. He made his money selling horse racing tips and was under constant investigation by the authorities. An editor who worked at night for Newsday and I were the sole staff–and we were, at least most of time, mainline journalists. We developed a formula that, in its way, approached People magazine. We would gloss the already glamorous, and lament those who had lost their sheen. We highlighted Hollywood jealousies, and were amused when mainstream gossip columnists grabbed our fabrications and ran with them.
After a few short months the distributor decided ours was tame stuff, and the paper was sold to a company that had seen the Harrison formula: Truth is trouble.