I Watched A Wild Hog |
"I WATCHED A WILD HOG EAT MY BABY!"
A Colorful History of Tabloids and Their Cultural Impact
By Bill Sloan
Review by Tom Brinkmann
The title of this informative book was an actual tabloid headline taken from The National News Extra dated December 8, 1974. "I Watched A Wild Hog Eat My Baby!" follows a tradition of books and articles which have culled their titles from the insane universe of tabloid headlines. Specifically the April 1969 issue of Playboy, which contained an article on the tabloids, called "I Cut Out Her Heart & Stomped On It!" by Reginald Potterton. And Grossed Out Surgeon Vomits Inside Patient! — the title of Jim Hogshire’s book on his experiences working for the National Enquirer.
"I Watched A Wild Hog Eat My Baby!" is essential reading for anyone even vaguely interested in the genesis of today’s across-the-board "tabloidification" of the media, and it should be one of the required texts in any class on American journalism.
In 1968 author Bill Sloan, at the time an investigative reporter for the Dallas Times Herald, was invited to become a staff writer for the National Enquirer, he accepted the job and tripled his salary by doing so. Sloan worked at the Enquirer until 1970 when he was offered yet another job as editor in chief at Globe Communications located in Montreal, Canada. Globe was the publisher of Midnight, the Enquirer’s main competition at the time. Sloan’s job there only lasted a short time and in March 1971 he returned to the Times Herald for a year, before again being hired away by Allied News Company of Chicago, who published the National Tattler. Sloan worked for them as managing editor until February 1975.
Sloan’s main focus is on the three publishers he worked for, which happened to be the top three, and gave him the credentials and the contacts to write this insider’s exposé on the convoluted history of modern tabloids.
The curious tale starts with Generoso Pope, Jr, "the father of the modern supermarket tabloid," who had graduated from MIT with a degree in engineering. Shortly thereafter, in 1951, he worked for the CIA in their psychological warfare unit, as an intelligence officer involved in Cold War propaganda schemes, until the agency’s bureaucracy led him to quit.
Strangely enough, the mobster Frank Costello was Pope’s actual godfather. When Pope bought the ailing New York Enquirer in 1952 — its circulation at the time being 17,000 — Costello reportedly lent his godson $25,000 of the $75,000 it cost. Pope’s foggy connections to the CIA and the Mafia would come up again later in his life. In 1954 Pope revamped the paper’s format from a broadsheet to a tabloid, and renamed it the National Enquirer.
The paper turned its focus toward lurid gore in the early 1960s after Pope had been stuck in traffic caused by motorists rubbernecking at a grisly accident. From then until approximately 1967, Pope gave his readers exactly what they wanted to see — gore galore, which helped boost the weekly circulation to around one million copies.
But Pope wanted more. And when he saw a lot of news-stands closing, he came up with a plan to get the National Enquirer into the supermarkets across America, nixing the gore and freakshow features from the paper in favour of celebrity chasing, dietary fads, heart-warming animal stories, and the like.
Pope’s scheme worked with the help of William Hall, a "non-food merchandise manager for the entire Kroger chain" who Pope hired and made executive vice president of Best Medium Publishing, the Enquirer’s parent company. With Hall’s contacts in the supermarket industry, his "saturation marketing" and "mass-market distribution" the Enquirer not only overcame its slump in sales due to the refocusing campaign, but achieved close to 100% distribution in the supermarket chains across the country.
At about the time Pope was renaming the National Enquirer in 1954, in Montreal, Canada, Joe Azaria and John Vader published the first issue of their tabloid Midnight (November 27, 1954), which became the Enquirer’s closest competitor by the 1960s. Midnight was initially a far inferior product to the Enquirer, and at times even stole gory photos from it, which they used in their fabricated stories. (Midnight evidently didn’t have the connections with the local police department, which the Enquirer had, preventing them from buying old accident and crime scene photos.) Midnight did give the Enquirer a run for the reader’s money for a while, but never caught up to the latter’s sales figures. Midnight became the Midnight Globe in 1978, and eventually was shortened to the Globe, after Globe Communications, its publisher.
The third company in the tabloid-publishing triumvirate that Sloan worked for was the Allied News Company in Chicago, which was a distributor of periodicals until 1962, when they began publishing the National Insider. Owned by Joseph Sorrentino, Allied News would eventually add the National Tattler, Candid Press and the National Exploiter to their stable of tabloids. The Exploiter later morphed into the hilarious National News Extra in 1972. Joseph Sorrentino’s nephew, Vince Sorrentino, decided to compete with his uncle in 1963 and started the National Informer, which focused on sex instead of gore.
Having worked for the three major publishers of tabloids in North America, Sloan writes about the struggles and concerns of the companies and the owners mentioned above. These companies had the practice of headhunting editors and writers from one another — or picking them up from the Enquirer, after Gene Pope would fire them right before the holiday season each year, or on any given Friday. In other words, the point is made that there was a high turnover amongst the staff of all these tabloids.
Sloan follows the Enquirer from its humble beginnings in New York City, to their move across the Hudson River to New Jersey, and its biggest move in 1971 to Lantana, Florida. Florida’s southeast coast, just north of Miami, became known as "Tabloid Valley" when the other tabloids followed the Enquirer’s lead and also relocated.
The death of the first generation of sleazy tabloids brought about by the supermarket campaign led by the Enquirer is discussed in detail. Rupert Murdoch and his attempted buyout of the Enquirer and his eventual start of the National Star in 1974 are also well covered by Sloan. The book’s various chapters — such as "The Jackie O Miracle and the Dawn of Celebrityitis", "From Elvis to OJ To Princess Di: The Tabs at High Tide" and "Horrors! Tabs Outsleazed by Mainstream Media" — all help to add another piece to the puzzle and complete the picture of where the tabloids came from and where they might be headed.
Also covered are the changes that led to the tabloids being bought up in the nineties, and where they might be headed in the future. Sloan makes the prediction that "You don’t have to be a mathematical genius to see where these [sales] figures are leading. If the trend continues at the same rate, the supermarket papers’ circulation base — and the papers themselves — will have vanished totally by 2018, if not earlier."
Tangentially, Sloan answers the question of what happened to all the true crime detective magazines that went missing from the racks across America at the end of 2000. The answer is part of the tale of how all the existing tabloids — the Enquirer, Star, Examiner, Globe, Sun and Weekly World News — are now owned and published by the same company, American Media Consumer Entertainment Inc.
In 1999 Globe Communications published all the detective titles then currently on the racks. After American Media bought Globe Communications in the same year, they continued to publish the true crime magazines for a few months before deciding to can them all. The last detective magazine they published was Startling Detective’s September 2000 issue. (Having been published just before September 11, 2001, the book doesn’t cover the letter containing anthrax that killed Sun photo editor Bob Stevens and sickened another employee at the Boca Raton, Florida headquarters of American Media Inc.)
"I Watched A Wild Hog Eat My Baby!" has eight pages of black and white photos of the various publishers, author Sloan while working for the tabloids, and covers of some of the tabloids themselves, which includes photos of two rare, early issues of Midnight.
Many thanks are due Mr Sloan for providing us with this excellent book on an important part of our popular culture.
| tom brinkmann
, bill sloan
, national enquirer
, national insider
, bad mags
, new jersey
, new york