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August 27, 2007
I Mourn the Weekly
World News, Because My Hands Are Not Clean
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 1965 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 the 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
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
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.
© 2007 North Star
Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.
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