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Tabloid titan dies; somewhere, Elvis is in mourning

The King is dead.

No, not Elvis. We speak here of Eddie Clontz, for 20 years the king of the supermarket tabloids. Mr. Clontz, who made the Weekly World News into the wildest collection of screaming headlines in journalism history, died Monday (Jan. 26, 2004) in Salt Spring, near Ocala. He was 56 and reportedly had left the paper three years ago.

As editor of the Weekly World News, Mr. Clontz announced that Elvis was still alive, reported that a dozen U.S. senators were from another planet, found the lost continent of Atlantis near Buffalo, N.Y., and uncovered a "bat boy" living in a West Virginia cave.

Unlike most editors, Mr. Clontz always advised his staff not to be too skeptical.

"Never question yourself out of a good story," he would say. "You have got to know when to stop asking questions."

Mr. Clontz died of complications from diabetes. His obituary in the Ocala Star-Banner revealed that his first name was Harold.

"I think every journalist in the United States secretly envied Eddie Clontz. I did," Washington Post humor columnist Gene Weingarten, a friend, said by e-mail. "Here was a man who simply refused, as a matter of principle, to allow truth to get in the way of a great story."

In an era when the New York Times has fired staffers over made-up stories, Mr. Clontz stood out as an editor who was unashamed of publishing fiction.

"We don't know whether the stories are true, and we don't really care," Mr. Clontz said once.

A 10th-grade dropout from North Carolina, Mr. Clontz once worked as the wire editor for the defunct Evening Independent in St. Petersburg. "I thought he was extremely creative," recalled Mike Foley, a University of Florida journalism teacher who worked with Mr. Clontz at the Independent.

The Weekly World News was born as an afterthought when its sister paper, the National Enquirer, switched to color in 1979. Rather than let the old black-and-white press sit idle, publisher Generoso Pope launched the News, filling it with leftover celebrity gossip from the Enquirer.

In 1981, Pope hired Mr. Clontz, who had studied the history of sensational newspaper reporting. Mr. Clontz remade the paper into what he called "the last true tabloid in America," with barely believable tales like: "BLIND MAN REGAINS SIGHT AND DUMPS UGLY WIFE!"

Mr. Clontz was personally involved in every aspect of the paper. Foley, a former executive editor of the Times, recalled visiting Mr. Clontz once when the staff was trying in vain to track down a story about a woman in California who had accidentally crushed her child by sitting on him. No one in California could confirm the story.

"Finally Eddie wrote, "Dateline, Bolivia,' and said, "Write it and print it,' " Foley said.

Mr. Clontz wrote the weekly "Ed Anger" opinion column, which was so vitriolic that it made Rush Limbaugh sound like St. Francis of Assisi, and had a hand in the outlandish headlines. When his staff planned to run a cover story about the face of Satan being photographed floating above Washington, D.C., Mr. Clontz ordered the headline changed.

"Make it "FACE OF SATAN SEEN OVER U.S. CAPITOL!' Now make it bigger. Remember, we need to catch the reader in a couple of seconds. Bigger. Bigger. Good." Then he said the subhead should be: "Has the Devil escaped from Hell?"

Mr. Clontz's impact showed up in television shows like X-Files and movies like Men in Black, which both suggested that the News' wildest tabloid tales were real. The tale of Bat Boy became a popular off-Broadway musical. In 1992, when the News announced that a space alien had endorsed Bill Clinton, incumbent President Bush said he was disappointed.

But Mr. Clontz's biggest story was the discovery that Elvis Presley, whom everyone in the world figured was dead when he was buried in 1977, was still alive. Then, in 1993, Weingarten said he phoned Mr. Clontz to pass along a suggestion from Miami Herald humor columnist Dave Barry that the News should now report that Elvis had just died, this time for real.

"I could hear the wheels turning," Weingarten recalled. "Eddie knew this would end a cottage industry of tabloid Elvis-still-lives articles, basically cripple the franchise _ but, man, what a story!"

A few weeks later the story hit the stands: ELVIS DEAD AT 58.

"It was a huge scoop," Weingarten said. Time passed, and then the News "exclusively learned some time later that reports of Elvis's death were a hoax. And they were back in the Elvis business."

_ Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which also used information from the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Smithsonian magazine.

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