Who, What, Where, When, Weird: How the News Has Embraced the Strange

by 
from Pacific Standard

Some years ago, the author of the syndicated column “News of the Weird”—a de facto dean of oddball journalism named Chuck Shepherd—made an unnerving observation: The weirdness of the world, he said, was beginning to go extinct.

Since the early 1980s, Shepherd had been scouring the news for strange tidbits—man-bites-dog stories such as “Woman Wins Extreme Ironing Competition” or “Government Employees Charged With Taking Kickbacks on Purchase of Red Tape”—and passing them along to a small nation’s worth of readers. At its height, “News of the Weird” reached 300 newspapers.

In what may have been the surest sign of his dominion over the wide weird world, Shepherd maintained an official list of things that are “No Longer Weird.” Number 8: “Hunters Shoot Each Other.” Number 36: “Pack of Animals Breaks Into Liquor Cabinet or Fermenting Vat, Get Drunk.” Number 64: “Impostor Cop Has Car With Flashing Light, Stopping Motorists, Accidentally Stops Real Cop.” All these stories, Shepherd said, might once have earned a laugh or raised an eyebrow, but “now occur with such frequency that they must be retired from circulation.”

Then, somewhere along the line, something truly strange happened: the Internet. By the early 2000s, the spread of online culture had tapped into a giant reservoir of weird news stories. With more oddball tidbits in circulation than ever before, Shepherd gave up keeping track of the redundancies. “So many things became no longer weird that the sassiness of the idea was spoiled for me,” he says.

Shepherd’s business was pretty well spoiled too. In the early days, he dug up the strangest stories by hand, or drew upon a network of informants. Now anyone could find their own weird clips on Google News. (“There are certain keywords you can use, like florida, naked, drunk, that turn these stories up,” says Drew Curtis, the founder of Fark.com, an aggregator site and social network for nearly two million weird news aficionados.) Shepherd’s syndication deals began to wither. While he’s kept a loyal set of readers, enough to keep the column going, it now appears that he is at the end of his career. “I don’t know exactly when I’ll retire,” he told me from his home in (where else?) Florida, “but it probably won’t be that much longer.”

Shepherd may go out of business, but weirdness hasn’t gone extinct. It’s just moved into a different kind of market. The genre used to be the domain of connoisseurs like Shepherd, who, like the indie-music snobs of yore, had spent enough time pawing through record crates to know a truly rare find from a derivative one. Now the quirky item has drifted from the margins of the ink-and-paper business to the center of the meme economy, and weird news has gone mainstream. In 2014, a survey by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that roughly one-third of young adults put “fun/weird” among their five most important categories of news. At least a dozen staffers contribute to the “Weird” section of the Huffington Post, which was among the first of the site’s 62 sections to reach a million fans on Facebook.

Of course, in a way, Chuck Shepherd is just another victim of a changing news environment—a dead-tree guy who has had his job as gatekeeper taken over by the crowd. But weird news is unique in that it really can’t exist without a gatekeeper. It’s a category defined by what it’s not, and by how one chooses to set the boundaries of what’s “normal.” The tastes of the old weird news purveyors said a lot about how they understood the concept, and the world. So as the genre grows in size and profit, it bears asking: What does mainstream weirdness even mean?

For at least a century, the genre of weird news has been driven by a pair of rival spirits—two theories of weirdness that co-exist but never jibe. First there are the satirists, the weirdness hunters who put their quarry in a circus cage: They point us at the characters they’ve nabbed so we can laugh at them together. Then there are the weirdness conservationists, the ones who see their subjects as members of a beautiful exotic species.

For the satirists, reporting on the weird has often served to track and stifle human folly; their work blurs the line between weirdness and stupidity. H.L. Mencken was among the first to bring this sharp and snooty (today we call it “snarky”) format to American letters. He crowdsourced newsy odds and ends from local papers in what he called at first “The Purling of the Platitudinarians—a digest of recent cosmic balderdash,” and later just “Americana.” The feature soon found an avid audience among the English, who “at that time were full of dudgeon against [Uncle Sam] and eager for evidence that he and his lieges were imbeciles,” as Mencken put it in his memoirs. “I complied willingly.”

This nasty view of weirdness spread to other highbrow publications, including the New Yorker, which as of 1925 produced a regular page of “interesting newspaper headlines, super-unctuous press agent announcements, typographical errors, etc.,” that helped establish its trademark distance from the hoi polloi. And this pose wasn’t just reserved for snickering sophisticates. A more populist version can be seen in the well-established weird news trope

of the “Dumb Criminal” who earns whatever fate he meets through lack of common sense—like the bank robber who posts incriminating selfies to Facebook. And it thrives today in venues like the Darwin Awards, a website started in 1993 (and also adapted into books and a feature film) that singles out people who “eliminate themselves [from the gene pool] in an extraordinarily idiotic manner, thereby improving our species’ chances of long-term survival.”

Chuck Shepherd has a bit of a mean streak too—he calls one of his recurring features “Thinning the Herd”—but overall he’s in the other camp of weird news connoisseurs, the one that stands in solidarity with the weirdos and the dopes.

In fact, this nicer version of weird news goes back farther than the nasty kind. According to the independent scholar Rictor Norton, it started 200 years ago in England with a proto-Shepherd clipping newspapers in his study. William Thomas Beckford, an eccentric millionaire and art collector, became a recluse in his Gothic abbey after having been discovered a homosexual in the 1780s. He started collecting articles on art and architecture, foreign travel, politics, and high society, but also a trove of weird news clippings: stories of human sacrifice, of elaborate practical jokes, of barmy miscreants such as a German baroness who had been arrested for prying bits of marble from Roman churches with a crowbar. (Could she have been the first Dumb Criminal?) Beckford also clipped stories of male brothels, and homosexual affairs, and whatever persecutions or prosecutions one might suffer for the crime of being gay.

His spiritual descendent, the scrapbooker, sexologist, and early gay rights campaigner George Ives, did the same starting in 1892. Like Beckford, he collected tales of cross-dressing and black magic, along with cricket scores and articles about the gross mistreatment of his fellow homosexuals.

In other words, the earliest weird news aggregators were themselves weirdos by the standards of their day. Polite society had decided that their preferences in the bedroom were abnormal and obscene. So they made themselves the gatekeepers of their own strange universe, and gathered up museum assortments of their fellow freaks and underdogs. Their weird news was personal.

Much the same goes for Robert Ripley, the genuinely weird and bucktoothed cartoonist who in 1918 started drawing panels of amazing facts and feats, such as “the chap who walked backwards across the continent.” But his gallery of freaks and wonders wasn’t private, it was mass market: It became the syndicated comic strip Ripley’s Believe It or Not.

The genre of weirdos reporting on the weird really found its voice, and its own variety of nastiness, as an offshoot of the counterculture. In 1972, when freak flags were flying high, National Lampoon launched its “True Facts” column: a collection of peculiar snippets summarized from mainstream publications, paired with a drawing by an underground cartoonist.

“True Facts” still mocked its subjects, but the weird news of the 1970s hinted at a common cause: the overthrow of squares. There was the guy who, one day in 1975, found himself holding a bag of dog shit after mugging a fancy lady with a miniature poodle. That’s a dumb-criminal story to be sure, but it’s also a dumb-everything story. The “True Facts” sensibility—conspiratorial instead of condescending, nihilistic instead of normative—seeped into the alternative press.

One alt-weekly columnist who took his inspiration from the Lampoon was a sometime lawyer and business school professor named Chuck Shepherd.

The rise of clickbait has made weirdness ubiquitous, but it has also selected for those memes that are just weird enough to glide smoothly through social media: things that are unexpected in the most expected kind of way. Even the celebrity PR machine has caught on to its easy popularity. “I don’t think ‘weird news’ has diminished; I think it is news,” says Fark.com’s Curtis. “I mean, look at all the celebrity stuff—Christina Aguilera calling Mickey Mouse an asshole, Keith Richards saying that he smoked his dad’s ashes. These are the articles that really trend.”

All this mainstream prominence has brought along some journalistic resources and a respectability that weird news never had before. Buck Wolf, who has taken Shepherd’s mantle as the dean of oddball journalism, is Huffington Post’s “Executive Editor of Weird News.” (“If that’s not a preposterous title, I don’t know what is,” he says.) He’s an old-school strangeness hound who describes Chuck Shepherd as his hero, but he’s done more than anyone to push weird news away from simple round-ups of material from local papers. He’s tried to make it more dignified: more about actual reporting than cribbing local copy, more likely to debunk a hoax than to spread an urban legend. (Wolf’s thesis for the Columbia University journalism school, on the lives of little people, can be taken as a serious brief for weird news.) “I try to tell the stories better, and I want to be the one who says it first,” Wolf explains. “I want to be the one who says it in the most compelling way on Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest.”

Yet some of Wolf’s stories are so nice, so decorous, that they’re hardly recognizable as weird. At the Huffington Post, he sometimes strips the weirdnesslabel from his articles to avoid propagating stigma. A 2014 story written by one of Wolf’s reporters about the Michael Jordan of dwarf basketball, for example, ran under a “HuffPost News” header, instead of “HuffPost Weird News.” Some topics get skipped over altogether: “There are certain stories that are off-limits, that we won’t do,” he says. “We shy away from stories where the victim may be mentally incompetent. We won’t show pictures of children involved in any sort of crime.”

This degree of sensitivity is something new in weird journalism. Where the counterculture aimed to be subversive, and the satirists aimed to make readers feel superior, HuffPo Weird doesn’t want to give offense. That’s at least in part because it’s subject to the pressures of a traffic-driven business model where feel-bad stories tend to sink into oblivion. No one wants an angry Twitter backlash; they want Facebook likes instead.

Sure, weird news today sometimes takes a savage tone and bullies those who stray from social norms (Michael Jackson, Bruce Jenner, Randy Quaid). But outlets seem to realize that weird items have more value when their idiosyncrasies can be controlled, their nastiness and nihilism evened out for maximum shareability.

How has this new era made life different for the weirdos themselves, the modern-day descendants of William Thomas Beckford and George Ives? If you ask the old guard of weirdness conservationists, it has come at a cost to their authenticity. Pat Glynn is a former San Diego radio producer who in 1980 created something called the Wireless Flash News Service, a business-to-business provider of “unusual types” for guest spots on TV and radio. Wireless Flash had hundreds of clients in its best years, like Johnny Carson, David Letterman, and Comedy Central. It pushed eccentric characters in front of millions of people. But these days, Glynn has grown disillusioned with the weird news business. “There used to be all these wonderful people, these wonderful human beings,” he says, but they’ve gotten bland and sanitized. Everyone is desperate for a moment of exposure, he says. “People are too self-conscious now, just working to get on…. It’s such a glut. It’s cheapened now. It doesn’t mean anything.”

As for the animating spirit of today’s weird news, if anything it’s more therapeutic than sardonic. “Life is so messy and it’s so hard to draw lines, and even do the right things,” Buck Wolf says. “I hope that when you read weird news, when you see news from the fringe, you realize that the world is one big, fucked-up place, and then you feel better about yourself, or hopefully you don’t feel much worse. We’re all trying to get through it all, and the fact that life isn’t perfect is somewhat important to document.”

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