SOUTH BEND – Maybe the Weekly World News (WWN) stopped publishing too soon. Wouldn’t that once flourishing supermarket tabloid be popular today, what with such widespread belief in fake conspiracies and pontificated falsehoods?
The WWN was a weakly weekly, in terms of journalism. In fact, it wasn’t journalism at all. It wasn’t news at all. It was fiction, strictly fiction, portrayed as news, with sensational headlines that attracted shoppers glancing at the array of supermarket tabloids at check-out lanes.
It ceased publishing 11 years ago, although it and its famous covers still can be found on-line. The WWN hit 1.2 million readership in the 1980s. There were so many memorable headlines:
“Elvis Is Alive”; “Severed Leg Hops to Hospital”; “Saddam and Osama Adopt Shaved Ape Baby.”
My favorite was the cover story about the demise of a woman with a mink coat who was bitten to death when the animals came back to life and did her in. There was a photo. Photographic proof.
I looked at the covers while in line at Martin’s Supermarket, but I didn’t want to be seen buying the tabloid. Fortunately, a colleague at The Tribune was brave enough to buy it occasionally. We enjoyed a lot of laughs about the ridiculous WWN “exclusives.”
Not all laughed. I got frequent phone calls from a nice, polite lady who wondered why I never wrote a column about WWN disclosures, such as “Five U.S. Senators Are Space Aliens!” Well, I tried to explain gently that I really didn’t have any space aliens as sources.
“Nothing but the Truth.” That was its motto. And many of its readers no doubt believed, as that lady did, that the WWN told the truth about things the mainstream media covered up.
Alas, circulation plummeted. Why?
Some theorized that the tabloid’s defense in a libel case turned off believers. The successful defense was that it couldn’t be libel because everybody knew the WWN stories were fake. Some cited the tabloid’s decision to switch from declaring that it presented the truth to instead providing a warning: “The reader should suspend disbelief for the sake of enjoyment.” Some, Pollyannaish, thought Americans were becoming too well informed to fall for such nonsense. Or was it because the WWN, sister publication of the National Enquirer, was published without color on old presses once used by the Enquirer? It didn’t attract attention amid the more in-color sensations of competitors at the check-out lanes.
Anyway, readership fell. It halted publication on Aug. 27, 2007.
Too soon? Probably not. Potential for fake news remains. But a black-and-white WWN wouldn’t stand a chance in competition with social media. Oodles of fake news is found there without having to go to the supermarket to obtain it. And it can reach more Americans than ever read the Weekly World News.
The Russians understood the potential. In their efforts to shake belief in our institutions, sow divisiveness and influence our presidential election, they spread fake news and found believers.
One example of belief in a fake story rivaling the credibility of Senate space aliens was when a man came from North Carolina and opened fire on a Washington pizzeria after believing social media claims that the place was the site of a child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton. Real issues can be cited for deciding not to vote for Clinton; a child sex ring was not a real issue, not real at all.
The WWN of old would not have the reach or the impact of Facebook or Twitter. Just look at the reach of certain famous tweets.
Like the lady who was loyal to the WWN, there are many, many more, who would believe the tweeter if he told of a severed leg hopping to the hospital or that Senate critics were space aliens.