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When I Was Fake News

by Duncan Birmingham

edited by Amy Shearn

There’s an old saying in yellow journalism: Once you go tabloid, you never go back. Meaning you’ve blown your credibility and burned your bridge to legitimate media.

For that reason most writers end their careers in tabloids; I started mine there.

During high school, I lived a few miles south of the National Enquirer in Lantana, Florida. My hobbies were reading books, smoking pot and going to Denny’s, picking hallucinogenic mushrooms at a farm in nearby Hobe Sound that my buddy later found out was owned by a sheriff, avoiding the beach, and telling people, when they asked at least, that I wanted to be a writer.

A friend of a friend of my parents knew someone at the National Enquirer and got me a summer job as an office assistant. I remember shaving (partially; I had a Stone Temple Pilots chinstrap-look going back then) and then mentally debating whether to wear the blue Oxford shirt my mom had ironed tucked in or hanging out of my khaki pants. My references for what a journalist looked like were few: Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men; bloated Norman Mailer glaring from the back of his hardcovers; Chevy Chase undercover with false teeth in Fletch. I tried to be a good kid so my guess is I tucked the shirt in and spent the whole day worrying about it.

The Enquirer compound was an unimpressive sprawl tucked away behind shrub walls and bowed palms in a quiet corner of Lantana. The whole place was low-slung ceilings, flickering fluorescents, and thin carpeting with a light scent of mildew. This was 1993 and the late 70’s decor was just as outdated as many of the boilerplate headlines about Liz Taylor’s weight gain and Ed McMahon’s alcoholism.

On my first day I was welcomed with some National Enquirer schwag (t-shirt, hat) and, incongruously, a coupon book for Miami Subs. The secretaries wanted to know why I was marring my baby face with facial hair like Abe Lincoln’s. The male reporters wanted to know if I was excited to sleep with college girls next fall. I was the bright shiny thing for a full glorious morning before I was given a stack of copy to proof-read, and forgotten about.

The reporters loved to tell me about the good old days. Back in the 70’s when the paper’s circulation peaked with a cover photo of dead Elvis and a handful of competing tabloids operated out of the same town, the area was nicknamed the Tabloid Valley or Tabloid Triangle. Back then there was money everywhere and the editor-in-chief Gene Pope had a 175-foot tree cut down in Washington state, trucked to Florida, erected in front of the National Enquirer and decorated by Hell’s Angels working on scaffolding. You could see the tree from miles away. Pope said it was the tallest Christmas tree in the world and yet he was never able to get it into the Guinness Book of World Records. He claimed he was being blackballed. If nothing else at the Enquirer, I was a fresh set of ears to tell the old stories to.

I worked as a floater moving from department to department, sitting at the desks of reporters out sick or on assignment while working on whatever task was shoveled my way. I often opened reader mail--sorting it into piles (story tips, celebrity news, etc.) for various editors. Anything threatening was put in a separate pile for the legal department. There was no end to the mailbags. A reporter would sit on the corner of my desk at least once a day to tell me, "You know the National Enquirer gets so much mail that we got our own zip code in the early 80’s." Letters thanking the magazine for its beauty tips and canker sore cures rivaled letters attacking it for slandering Joan Rivers and covering up Hoffa’s murder. I remember lots of fan mail addressed to Pat Sajack sidekick Vanna White, whose every date and diet the tabloid relentlessly chronicled for reasons I’ll never understand. There were letters from penitentiaries and mental hospitals, postcards from all over the world written in various languages. Correspondence with hot tips abounded–-readers who claimed one night stands with Mickey Rourke or religious apparitions appearing in their garage; old family recipes and funny pet stories were passed along, appeals for help for a child in chemo or family home crushed by a tornado were common. Blurry Polaroids, Holy cards, clipped hometown obituaries, and fan art tumbled out of the envelopes as well. I passed along anything legible and am not sure what happened to the bulk of it. Following up was above my meager pay grade.

I didn’t get to interact with the tipsters whose mail I opened but I did get face-time with some of our most passionate fans in the parking lot and lobby as they tried to talk their way past the receptionist. There was a woman with coffee stained teeth who said she’d been prodded by aliens and had the bruises to prove it. There was a white haired man in a lab coat–-distinguished-looking if not for the rubber flotation device he wore around his waist–-who called himself Dr. Love and was often in the lobby perusing back issues while waiting in vain to meet with a reporter. Supposedly he was this close to curing AIDs.

Florida always felt to me like someone shook the country like an old rug and all the grifters and oddballs came tumbling down to the phallic state like so much crumbs and spare change; the National Enquirer may have covered the whole country and circulated the world but its glossy outlandishness and caustic kitsch synced up so well with South Florida’s over-the-top tourist trap surroundings that to me it may as well have been our hometown paper.

When I wasn’t at a desk opening mail, I was in a small building down a sloping hill of thick St. Augustine grass, sorting it. That was only when someone called in sick. My boss Dan in the mailroom was very apologetic that my days down there sorting and delivering weren’t giving me the journalistic experience I was gaining up in the main offices. This was grunt work, he said. After the initial apologies, his manner relaxed quickly. He was quitting cocaine but try getting your dick wet in South Florida without swinging a bag of coke around, he’d say. Lugging mailbags, I nodded like tell me about it. It was hard enough, he continued, trying to pick up chicks when all the clubs with decent drink specials had one chick for every 10 swinging dicks. Coke, dicks; to hear Dan tell it everything was swinging. The moral of the story was don’t start in with the coke. Also, he added with enough gravity for me to think he was coining the phrase, honesty is the best policy. To illustrate he told me his pick-up line which was to beeline straight to some cute ladies at a bar–-"not too hot," he specified, but cute–-and very politely introduce himself.

“I just say hello. How are you doing this evening? My name’s Dan and I work at the National Enquirer. I’m here to buy you the drink of your choice and make love to you.”

Dan saw my skepticism and assured me it was a great ice-breaker that sent the ladies into hysterics and always got him invited to join them and 4 times out of 10 the evening ended with him swinging one of them around his bedroom. I never asked what happened the other 6 out of 10 times and still remain skeptical. Although Florida did always have its own unique mating rituals.

One of my first tasks, ironically, was fact-checking. I remember repeatedly calling the White House to confirm if a certain type of popcorn was, indeed, Bill Clinton’s snack food of choice. I don’t remember the context but the story hinged on it and I felt like a failure when I wasn’t able to confirm this factoid. Does Tom Selleck have a condo in Vail? Does Sharon Stone have summer plans? Is Don Johnson on the market? These were the complex existential questions I spent long afternoons trying, from PR execs and distant relatives, to get answers to. It was a lot of man hours for frivolous information that would a few years later be Google-able in seconds if it hadn’t already been shot out into social media by the stars themselves. It’s enough to almost make me nostalgic for the days of gatekeepers when a handful of national sources supplied our guilty pleasure gossip as opposed to the infinite number of micro-outlets now spinning their own niche news 24/7. Celebrities have become their own flacks, news is editorialized, facts are malleable. The reason tabloids are in rapid decline today isn’t because we outgrew their junk journalism, it’s because we learned their game so well.

One day I went to Palm Beach to shadow an older reporter, Bill, interviewing an heiress who communed with ghosts in her mansion. Having come from a long career in legitimate media, Bill was the one who told me "once you go tabloid, you never go back," citing not only the loss of journalistic legitimacy but the big money, fun, and Florida sun you got in return. As a pasty teen making intern wages while avoiding the sun at all costs, I wasn’t sure I agreed but shrugged anyway.

The front walkway to the mansion was littered with fallen fruit from the surrounding trees that no one had picked up. A Haitian maid answered the door and made sure we wiped the rotten fruit off our feet. We sat in a cavernous living room sipping lemonade as the heiress talked through a couple decades-worth of mysteriously slamming doors, howling noises, appliances that sprung to life themselves, an apparition she’d spotted from her window fanning itself in the garden. The whole time the seasoned reporter took copious notes, nodding, face as grim as if he were covering Watergate. She kept looking at me and asking if I felt the vibrations. I said I didn’t think so. She shrugged. Apparently the ghost was a dead former owner of the home whose descendants came over on the Mayflower. Even the ghosts in Palm Beach had pedigrees.

After, Bill lightly scolded me for not playing along. “If someone asks if you hear vibrations or see ghosts or feel Frank Sinatra’s presence when you open the refrigerator,” he corrected me, “the answer is always yes.”

My first summer there was with filled with love and heartbreak. Not my own; I was shy, usually nursing a pot hangover, and kept to myself. It was the summer that Julia Roberts shocked the world by marrying Lyle Lovett. I still remember the way a couple female reporters said his name like it was a venereal disease as they leafed through a file of his AP photos. They couldn’t understand why one of the most beautiful woman in the world would marry this gangly minor star with Brillo pad hair. “She should be with Brad Pitt or Christian Slater,” one of them said. As a date-challenged high school senior, I wanted to defend Lyle Lovett but I didn’t really know who he was either. The other bombshell to drop was the divorce of tabloid mainstays Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson. I overheard someone saying Burt was on the phone and wanted to know how much he could get for the exclusive rights to their old wedding photos. Burt was a local boy–-from just a few towns north in Jupiter–-and apparently still as practical as ever.

When the end of the summer came, a few of the reporters took me out to Cuban food and gave me advice for college and for a writer’s life. A few of them had read the fiction stories and high school newspaper clippings I’d left on their desk and gave me notes. They were talking to me like I was a real writer, which was pretty much all I wanted back then. I don’t remember much of it but I know I heeded Bill’s old saying and came back to the tabloid the next summer.

That summer I was hired back but with a stipulation. I was no longer to work at the National Enquirer but to be an assistant in a far-flung corner of the building that housed the Weekly World News. The WWN was launched in 1979 when the National Enquirer went to color and thrifty editor-in-chief Gene Pope balked at the idea of scrapping the old printing press, instead choosing to crank out a cheapie black-and-white rag that expounded upon AP clippings from around the world. With its outrageous stories of aliens and Elvis zombies, many saw the WWN as the black sheep of the tabloid family and a delegitimizing force in the glossy weekly format that was starting to make a play into mainstream journalism. Those first few mornings walking through the big bustling bullpen of the National Enquirer to get to the cramped cube farm of the WWN, I felt like I’d been demoted and wondered what I’d done wrong last summer. Maybe it was my grunge-rock facial hair or failure to confirm on Bill Clinton’s favorite snack.

But I quickly realized my power was doubled at the smaller paper. I was doing the usual opening mail, proof-reading and clerical work but my duties now included generating actual stories. The Weekly World News subscribed to publications from all over the world and I was tasked with clipping out anything that seemed bizarre or gross and passing that to a reporter to rewrite in the most hyped-up manner possible. In a seasoned WWN staffer’s hands, an AP piece on a young man in South America with severe hypertrichosis became a story about a moon-howling Wolf Boy or a tragic item about an alligator attack in the Philippines became a spine-tingling tale about a village besieged by a swamp monster on a suicide mission.

When my friends claimed the Weekly World News was trash, I became defensive in a way I never was of the Enquirer, tossing an issue at them and daring them to tell me the fake from the true stories. Of course there were plenty of stories with no relation to the truth. Writers pitched the most bizarre tales off the top of their heads to the rest of the staff or submitted them on index cards for our editor Eddie Clontz to flip through Letterman-style at the end of the day. Eddie had a thick Southern drawl and would read the headlines out-loud. Humor was a big element of the stories and those sessions in the WWN office pitching ideas aloud, trying to one up each other and punching up someone else’s idea was very much akin to how I’d find a comedy writers’ room operated when I moved to Hollywood years later.

I was still shy and kept to myself at the Weekly World News but the relatively small staff was encouraging enough that I was soon not only handing in index cards with ideas but writing my own stories.

“Never fact-check your way out of a good story,” Eddie often said. He was always pushing me to make my pieces weirder and more outrageous.

Elephant feces being the hot new facial moisturizer in Europe and grave-robbing being the cool teen fad for rich kids were two of my early blurbs and soon I moved on to bigger articles with accompanying art like "Taxidermied Pet Wins Dog Show!" and "Santa’s Wife Is Now a Women’s Libber!" I wrote a story about a Nazi who was the life of the party at a retirement nudist colony in Key West that our editor gently suggested was in bad taste. While indulging my imagination, I learned the basics of AP style reporting including how to write a lead, open a paragraph, structure a story, and always end with a bang.

The next summer both the National Enquirer and the Weekly World News needed summer office help. It wasn’t even a hard decision. I went with my weirdos in the corner of the building and stayed there the following summer as well, when I appeared on the radio as the WWN’s resident Bigfoot Expert and offered the public at large a million dollar reward for Big Foot, alive and unharmed, to be brought to me in our office in Lantana. It was quite a thrill to lie to so many people and be in charge of so much hypothetical money.

After my summers at the tabloids, I’d return to college in upstate New York where I took pride flashing my Weekly World News press badge around and wearing my kitschy Enquiring Minds Want To Know hat. If you read the Weekly World News in the mid to late 90’s chances are many of the headshots you saw of expert doctors, vampire victims, and Elvis eye witnesses were actually my fellow students at St. Lawrence University. I took their photos and sent them to Florida and in exchange they’d receive $40 and live on in infamy with pseudonyms in stories about migrant farm workers killed by citrus monsters or the lucky recipients of Princess Diana’s harvested organs.

A year or so later I would have a lackluster internship at Rolling Stone, followed by a string of legitimate reporter and editor gigs at Boston, Somerville, and Cambridge newspapers that seemed to be consolidating, downsizing or outright closing the moment I got issued a new laminated press pass. The other reporters had more experience and hard-boiled stories when we went out for pints at Redbones or Sligo’s after putting the paper to bed.

Then one day I was having a hamburger alone at the bar when one of the bartenders smiled cheekily and spread the pages of his Weekly World News open in front of me. My picture was above a letter written to the self-help guru Dear Dottie asking for advice to achieve my lifelong dream of becoming a porn star. They had finally used my own photo in the paper and in the picture my face was acne-smeared and I had a wispy goatee.

“This is a joke, right?” he said. “Did you want to be a porn star?”

“Definitely. That was before I wanted to be a writer,” I shrugged dramatically and went back to my hamburger, remembering Eddie’s advice about never fact-checking my way out of a good story.