The incredible story of how I helped the Weekly World News

A new “oral history” of the former supermarket tabloid known as the Weekly World News was just published by Mental Floss, and it is well worth reading if you were ever a fan of the tab, or even if you weren’t. At one point it was one of the most successful newspapers in North America, with a circulation in the millions, and it sounds like at its peak — from the 1980s until the mid-1990s — it was a really fun place to work, mostly because the staff made up most of the stories, including the famous “Bat Boy” series, or the ones about Bigfoot and Elvis having a love child, etc. “Make up a few stories and then head to the beach,” as one former writer described working at the paper, which for most of its life was based in Boca Raton, Florida. While most of the world wanted to read about celebrities in the National Enquirer — which like the Weekly World News was started by Generoso Pope, Jr. — lots of people also seemed to love the Bigfoot and Bat Boy and alien-abduction stories, or the paper’s absurdly hilarious right-wing columnist, who went by the name Ed Anger.

Berger: Our mantra was, “Never talk yourself out of a good story.” If a lady called and said aliens ate her laundry, The New York Times might say, “Do you have evidence?” We’d say, “Oh, do you know if he liked jeans or frilly stuff best?”

Ivone: A lady once called us and said her toaster was talking to her. I said, “Put the toaster on the phone.” We took it seriously.

Kupperberg: That’s what Weekly World News is about. Put the toaster on the phone.

I was a big fan of the Weekly World News, which was a little like The Onion before the Onion came along (its founders were reportedly inspired by the WWN). It was so obvious that the stories were made up, and Ed Anger was such a great parody of right-wing columnists. So it was a big highlight for me when I got a chance to help the Weekly World News with a story in the mid-1980s, and got an interesting glimpse at how things worked inside the paper.

I was working for a regional newsmagazine in western Canada at the time (it no longer exists, and it was a bizarre story of its own, which maybe I will tell sometime), and because we were short on money and staff, we often grabbed interesting stories from medical journals or court filings and re-wrote them. So someone had written about a case where a young man with severe OCD decided to kill himself, and put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Through some kind of miracle, the bullet apparently went through his brain and out the top of his skull, but caused very little damage — apart from severing a connection that essentially cured him of his OCD (here’s an Associated Press story about it).

A couple of weeks after we ran this story, I got a call from someone who said they were an editor with the Weekly World News. Could they have the photo we used of the person in the story, as well as some of the background details? I was over the moon. Of course, I said, and sent them all of the info. And within a week or two, there was the story — and what was fascinating about it was that it was almost identical to the one we had published in terms of the facts (which were already pretty incredible, of course). All the editors had done was add adjectives like “amazing,” and “terrible,” and “painful” and so forth, along with a lot of exclamation marks. It sounded like the whole thing was made up, but I knew it wasn’t.

So the tech titans appeared before Congress—now what?

Note: This was originally written for the daily newsletter published by the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Last week, the chief executives of the four major tech platforms—Google, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook—appeared before Congress (virtually, at least) as part of a year-long investigation into whether antitrust regulators need to take action against any or all of them for anti-competitive behavior. Was the hearing mostly a sideshow, or was it a sign that Congress is planning significant changes to the rules that apply to these digital behemoths? And if regulations are going to change, or antitrust action is going to proceed against some or all of them, what would—or should—that look like? How can regulators apply laws that were designed a century ago for railroads and oil companies to digital networks whose products are ephemeral and cost nothing? In an attempt to answer some of these questions, we’ve been interviewing a number of journalists, academics, and other experts on antitrust, politics, and technology using CJR’s Galley discussion platform.

Our first interview was with Zephyr Teachout, an associate professor of law at Fordham University, a former Democratic candidate for governor of New York, and the former national director of the Sunlight Foundation. She said going into the hearing she felt “like a teenager on Christmas, ready to be pleased and ready to be horribly disappointed,” but came away thinking that the members of the committee posed some tough questions to the four tech titans, and even managed to draw out some “revelations,” as she put it—such as an admission from Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, that sellers who use Amazon’s shipping services are more likely to get access to the coveted “buy box” at the top of the page with recommended purchases. Teachout also said that the way Apple treats app developers renewed her commitment to antitrust regulation: “The 30% commission is just on its face highway robbery,” she said, adding that it “proves how monopoly is theft.”

David Dayen, the executive editor of The American Prospect and author of a new book entitled “Monopolized: Life in the Age of Corporate Power,” said that he felt the hearing exposed a number of obvious antitrust violations, and that the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice could have taken action to prevent some of this conduct but chose not to. Why? A lack of political will, he said. “Many of the top officials at FTC and DoJ Antitrust have ties to corporate law firms and have worked for the large companies they are now supposed to regulate,” Dayen said. “It’s kind of staggering how many conflicts there are.” Sandeep Vaheesan, legal director at the Open Markets Institute, said the hearing was an important reassertion of Congress’s power to regulate markets. The legislative body “has been silent for so long on these questions,” he said. “It felt like a throwback to an earlier time when Congress took its oversight function and matters of market governance seriously.”

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