Eddie Clontz died on the 26th of January, 2004. He was 56. This made him, by his own arithmetic, two years younger than Elvis at his death.

Come again?

Eddie Clontz was a journalist for most of his life. Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, he dropped out of school at 16 and became a copy boy at the local paper. From there, he became wire editor at the Florida Evening Independent. Here he weeded out the bizarre, the bogus and the eccentric stories from those that would make the pages of the somewhat traditional evening paper. Those stories, no doubt, filled up a space somewhere at the back of Clontz's brain, waiting for their chance.

It came in 1981, when he was hired for the Weekly World News. At the time, the News was an excuse for its publisher to keep running his black and white presses after its sister publication, the National Enquirer, had gone fully colour. It mainly served as a dump for underpar Enquirer stories and stale celebrity gossip. Under Clontz's watch, this soon changed. His pitch was to make the News into "the last true tabloid in America."

Where most newspapers aspire toward such journalistic ideals as factual accuracy and reliability, Clontz's News didn't restrain itself with such inconsequential notions as truth, or, indeed, any sense of reality. It delighted in running the most implausible headlines it could find. "ARCHAEOLOGISTS FIND MIDDLE EARTH IN NEW JERSEY SWAMP!" was one; "SATAN ESCAPES FROM HELL!" another (Satan, of course, later turned up in a cloud formation over New York state). Ever in touch with current events, a story recently ran on the latest threat to America: "TINY TERRORISTS DISGUISED AS GARDEN GNOMES!". (" 'These guys are typical al-Qaeda operatives,' says a top CIA source, 'with beards down to their belt buckles'. ")

While it would be a slur to suggest that such a journal ever made up its stories, a large portion of them came in from "freelance correspondents". It was certainly true that Clontz encouraged his reporters never to challenge their sources too thoroughly. "You have got to know when to stop asking questions," was one of his maxims. When your lead story is based on a tip from a man who phoned in after Bigfoot kidnapped his wife, this is a wise line to take.

Fact checking did take place, of a sort. The staff of beginners, exiles from respectable rags and sometime pop stars was directed to check that the names of Czech farmers threatened by giant cabbages really appeared in the phone book. Transgressions were dealt with by his preferred method of maintaining discipline: soaking his employees with the giant water pistol he kept in his desk.

His attitude was less as an editor-in-chief than as a circus-master, weekly corralling the most absurd stories possible into $1 worth of newspaper. Despite its price, the News paid its journalists good wages, often double what hacks at other papers would pull in. It had to. "We have to pay them a lot," Clontz once said, "because we are, in effect, asking them to end their careers." Once you've written a headline like "FIRE BREAKS OUT ON THE MOON!" it's difficult to be taken seriously at your next job interview.

The News is most famous for a couple of scoops that formed regular features of its copy over the years - the faked death of the King of Rock and Roll ("ELVIS IS ALIVE!") and the discovery of a bat boy in a cave in West Virginia ("BAT CHILD FOUND IN CAVE!").

Following the revelation that rumours of his death were much exaggerated, Elvis sightings multiplied across America. This, of course, informed many an inch high banner headline. While Elvis' death was reported in 1993, this too was later revealed to be a hoax.

Bat Boy, the large-eared and amber-eyed child ("eating his own weight in insects each single day"), became such a regular feature he earned a life off the pages of the News. His well-documented exploits included escaping his scientific captors, engaging on a whirlwind romance and endorsing Al Gore for president. His story was later turned into a musical.

The weirdest story of all is that some people out there really believe all this stuff. When the News ran a story about the discovery of a hive of orphan ghosts, more than a thousand readers contacted the paper to adopt one. In the film Men in Black, when Tommy Lee Jones's character bought a copy of the Weekly World News to find out "what's really happening", perhaps he was onto something.

As for Clontz himself, who knows? Whether he has faked his own funeral, was shrunk to the size of an ant or was just another victim of alien kidnapping, his "death" leaves American reporting a much less outrageous and irreverent field.

Obituary, The Economist, 21st February 2004
Obituary, Times Online 5th February 2004 - http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,60-989388,00.html

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