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Rock critic Ken Tucker

ken Tucker reviews "Catchali" the new release by the band Swag.

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Other segments from the episode on March 15, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 15, 2001: Interview with Kate Winslet; Interview with Bill Sloan; Review of the band Swag's new album "Catch-All."

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DATE March 15, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Bill Sloan talks about his experience working at
tabloid newspapers
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The sex, lives and diets of celebrities are the stock and trade of today's
tabloids. In earlier decades, the headlines were more like, A Violent
Cannibal Kills Pal and Eats Pieces of His Flesh, 3,000-Year-Old Man Brought
Back to Life and Girl Raped by Abominable Snowman Gives Birth to a Hideous
Beast Child. "I Watched a Wild Hog Eat My Baby!" is a new book about the
history of the tabloids. The author, Bill Sloan, worked for the tabloids in
the '60s and '70s. He was an editor at The National Enquirer, Midnight, which
became Globe and the National Tattler. He started his career as a reporter
for the Dallas Times Herald. I asked him about some of the best stories he
was involved with at the tabloids.

Mr. BILL SLOAN (Journalist): Some of the most memorable stories that I was
involved with back in the late '60s and early '70s were stories about Jackie
Onassis. And The Enquirer, where I was working then, was absolutely
fascinated with Jackie and everything that was going on in her life. And we
tried to get her on the cover as many times as we could, because our sales
always seemed to jump dramatically when we had a Jackie story out there.

GROSS: When you joined The Enquirer in--Was it 1968?--The...

Mr. SLOAN: Yes.

GROSS: ...Enquirer was reworking its image. What had its image been? How
was it changing?

Mr. SLOAN: Well, it had been known as the goriest, most scurrilous
publication probably in the history of American journalism because of all the
really gory and grotesque crime coverage that it specialized in. And in late
1967, Mr. Pope, the founder and publisher of the paper, began to pull away
from this because he wanted to get it into supermarkets because he felt that
that was the only way he could continue to sell in big numbers. The
mom-and-pop corner stores and the old newsstands, downtown newsstands, were
going out of business pretty rapidly then, and he decided that supermarkets
was the way to market a tabloid and he was absolutely correct as later
developments proved. But he knew that he had to clean up his act in order to
get accepted by the supermarkets and so he, very abruptly really, at least to
a lot of observers, fazed out the gory crime and turned The Enquirer into a
squeaky clean, sort of Reader's Digest in tabloid form. And it was at the
height at this, you know, cleanup period that I joined The Enquirer.

GROSS: What was an example of the type of gory story that he wanted to now
keep out of the paper that he used to publish and then changed his mind about?

Mr. SLOAN: Well, I think the most notorious story headline the ever ran in
The Enquirer, it was I Cut Out Her Heart and Stomped On It. And it was the
story about the mutilation slaying of an Olympic skier named Sonya Macasky.
And the cover, along with that headline, actually, he showed her severed head,
her heart and her hand and other parts of her body. And this is the type of
thing that The Enquirer specialized in: marred photos of accident victims and
murder victims and they didn't hold anything back.

GROSS: Was this a real photo of her or was it...

Mr. SLOAN: Oh, no, it was an absolutely authentic photo. All of these
pictures were authentic because there were photographers with police
departments and newspapers around the country who were willing to sell this
type of material to The Enquirer and were pretty well for it.

GROSS: So did his scheme work in terms of changing the content of The
Enquirer in order to get it at that checkout?

Mr. SLOAN: Oh, yes. Yes, it did. It worked out very well. But the Jackie O
thing began a gradual approach to more and more celebrity stories. And this
is what you see in today's tabloids. They're very, very heavy on celebrities.
I mean, you see a few human interest stories or gee-whiz stories tucked in
here or there,but they're at least 75 to 80 percent celebrity. And at that
time they were not. Celebrities were part of a very calculated mix that
included medicine and science and social issues and--oh, I don't know, there
was a list of about 35 or 40 categories that we tried to fill in every issue.

GROSS: Now one of the tabloids has a kind of different kind of cover right
now than the celebrity-oriented gossip type, and this is The Sun, where the
cover is Look and Feel 15 Years Younger in Just Two Weeks. And there's a
picture of, you know, a man and a woman both looking--I don't know--mid 50s to
late 50s, wearing kind of pastel leisure clothes, jumping up with their arms
over their head in this real like, `Yeah, feel good' type of position, and
that's not a Tom Cruise or, you know, Bill Clinton sex scandal kind of
headline.

Mr. SLOAN: No. The Sun and The News of the World, which is--was a companion
publication of The Enquirer before all the tabloids were bought out by the
same publishing company--these are what I loosely call lunatic-fringe
tabloids. They specialize in end-of-the-world stories--I mean, if you can
have one of those every week, that's basically what they want to do--and
spiritual themes. I know the man very well who was the mastermind behind The
Sun. He was also the co-founder of Midnight, which is now Globe and later
edited The Examiner, John Vader(ph). And he has an imagination like nothing
I've ever encountered before.

GROSS: Actually, you say in your book that John Vader has been called the mad
genius of the tabloids. What did he do to earn that title?

Mr. SLOAN: Well, I think the story and the headline that perhaps illustrates
his madness and his genius best is one that ran in the early '70s and was
reportedly a photograph of JFK in a wheelchair, obviously, you know, in a
semi-vegetated state, and the headline said, `JFK is Alive on Skorpios.' Now
when I talked to John a year ago, just about, he told me how that story came
together and it was--they took a member of the Midnight staff--the paper was
published in Montreal at that time--and they went up on top of Mt. Royal just
as the sun was going down, and they got this guy posed in a wheelchair with
his robe pulled up around him where all you could really see was his
profile--and he did have a very Kennedyesque profile--and they made some
pictures of him. And John had been thinking about this, he told me, for
months, maybe even years, the idea that JFK had somehow survived the shooting
in Dallas and was living on Skorpios or living some place in seclusion and
being taken cared of by Jackie and Onassis. And the paper just sold
gangbusters. I think it was one of the largest-selling issues in Midnight's
history. So this is an example of the kind of thing he was doing.

GROSS: My guest is Bill Sloan, the author of "A Wild Hog Ate My Baby!: The
History of the Tabloids." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Bill Sloan, the author of "A Wild Hog Ate My Baby!: A
History of the Tabloids." He worked for three tabloids in the '60s and '70s.

If you're just joining us, my guest is Bill Sloan and he's written a cultural
history of the tabloids. It's called "I Watched a Wild Hog Eat My Baby!" And
he wrote and edited for three different tabloids, The Enquirer, The Tattler
and Midnight, which became Globe. And he did that in the late '60s and early
'70s.

Let's get back to Gene Pope Jr., who founded The National Enquirer. You
describe him as the father of the modern supermarket tabloid.

Mr. SLOAN: Right.

GROSS: Now how did his father make his fortune?

Mr. SLOAN: Well, his father was an Italian immigrant who came to this
country in 1904 and he went to work for a sand and stone company in New York
City which had a lot of large contracts with the city of New York. And I
think that was the--he later took over the company. He became an executive,
and as I understand it, saved the company from bankruptcy and later took
control of it. He also bought and published an Italian language newspaper is
New York called El Progresso(ph), which was, at the time, the largest Italian
publication in the US. He had his finger in a lot of pies and he was very
closely aligned with a number of high-ranking mafia figures, including Frank
Costello, who was Gene Pope Jr.'s godfather.

GROSS: And Gene Pope Sr. supported Mussolini.

Mr. SLOAN: Yes, he did. He was a very ardent and outspoken supporter of
Mussolini. He went back to Italy after Mussolini took power and had a
face-to-face meeting with Il Duce and was very impressed by the man and he
openly supported and editorially supported Mussolini in El Progresso until the
virtual eve of World War II, when he finally denounced fascism editorially in
his paper.

GROSS: So why did Gene Pope Jr. decide to start a tabloid?

Mr. SLOAN: I'm not sure. I think he had a grand plan, even as a young man,
and he was obviously from a wealthy family but he was more or less estranged
from that family at the time. He was looking around for something to put his
genius to work on, and he found a down-at-the-heals New York Sunday newspaper
called the New York Enquirer which, ironically, had been established by a
close associate of William Randolph Hearst back in the '20s. And he bought
the paper for a reputed price of $75,000, and it was virtually defunct. It
was virtually out of business. They circulation was down to about 17,000,
and it was deeply in debt, which he didn't find out until after he bought it.
And the way he managed to salvage the paper and make it profitable, first of
all, was through cash infusions from Frank Costello, who, at that time, was
the acknowledged leader of the New York mafia.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bill Sloan and he's the author
of the new book "I Watched a Wild Hog Eat My Baby!: A History of the Tabloids
and Their Cultural Impact." And he worked for the tabloids in the late 60s
and early 70s. He worked for three of them.

What are some of the tricks of the trade that you learned while you were
working for the tabloids, how to take a small story and make it real big, blow
it out of proportion, put in innuendo that wasn't really there or allege
something that didn't really happen?

Mr. SLOAN: Well, of course, as a writer for The Enquirer, I was not allowed
to deviate very much from the source material that articles editor provided
for me. So it was really a matter of writing style more than anything else.
And tabloids were written in a terse, punchy way that--very short sentences.
To a very large extent, it was the kind of writing that I had been taught
should be practiced by daily newspapers. But daily newspapers have tended to
get away from that style, especially in recent years, and get very complex
with the way they approach a story, particularly with their analytical stuff.
But short sentences, you know, no more than eight or 10 words, short
paragraphs, get to the point, rock 'em, sock 'em, this type of thing I think
is what the tabloids specialized in and what made them so appealing to their
readership.

GROSS: You know, we were talking about some of the tricks of the trade, and
one of them that you describe in your book is something that John Vader, the
co-founder of Midnight, which became the Globe, told you about. Well, tell
the story behind, Elvis Found in Hotel Room With Six Girls at Once.

Mr. SLOAN: Yeah, right. Well, this was really pretty simple and it was also
ingenious. John would just go to a cheap motel in the Montreal area and sign
Elvis' name to the register, and then he would manufacture a story about Elvis
having been there in, you know, a sexually compromising situation. And he
would have the register with Elvis' name on it as documentation. That was all
the documentation he needed.

GROSS: Now my guess would be that there are certain stories in the tabloids
you can't run unless you have a photo to go along with it because the photo is
going to sell the story. Is that right?

Mr. SLOAN: Well, stories are often written to go with photos, but if you have
a good story...

GROSS: Oh, I see. So the photo often comes first.

Mr. SLOAN: Yeah, the photo often comes first. And if you have a good story,
you can always come up with stock photos to illustrate it.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. SLOAN: I remember where--the stories about Monica and Clinton and
Hillary and the first family, all these scandalous stories were illustrated
with stock pictures that, you know, had been run--I mean, all the agencies had
them. There was nothing incriminating or insinuating about the photos at all,
but they just--you know, they would, maybe, have a certain expression on their
face, a look of--maybe a little bit of a shocked look or they would be looking
unhappy or something of that nature, and they would just use those to
illustrate the story.

I remember a story about Monica contemplating suicide and, you know, they had
this sad-looking picture of Monica. I don't know where it came from, but
obviously it has nothing to do with the story. It was just a stock picture.

GROSS: I would imagine that if a celebrity is giving a friend a hug at a
restaurant, that that could suddenly be transformed into A Secret Affair
Discovered at Restaurant; Wrecks Marriage.

Mr. SLOAN: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely. And actually, they can
read sinister things into the most innocent picture. I remember a picture
that was run in Globe back during the presidential campaign of George W. Bush
holding a glass with some liquid in it. Now I don't know what the glass
contained, but to the tabloid editor who saw the picture, he immediately
though that, you know, `Oh, boy, this is evidence that Bush has fallen off the
wagon,' you know. And this appeared on the cover of Globe. This is the type
of thing they do.

GROSS: Did you pay sources when you were working for the tabs?

Mr. SLOAN: I never personally paid sources, but Generoso Pope approved
payments to sources all the time.

GROSS: Now how did you feel about that, coming from a newspaper background in
which you do not pay sources?

Mr. SLOAN: Well, it's not totally ethical as far as I'm concerned, but I
understand why the tabloids do it. And if they're paying a source who
provides legitimate material, legitimate information that nobody else has,
then, you know, I can see some justification for their doing it, especially in
the highly competitive situation that they find themselves in now with the
mainstream media going so sensational and so tabloidish on their own.

The Enquirer developed a lot of information in the O.J. Simpson case that
nobody else had, and they did it almost entirely with checkbook journalism.
But if they had not paid these sources, this information would never have
come to light.

GROSS: But it's so confusing because, you know, that mix--mixed in with some
of the accurate stuff in the tabloids is so much inaccurate stuff that it's
impossible for a reader to distinguish which is which.

Mr. SLOAN: It often is. It often is. And...

GROSS: It kind of soils all the information.

Mr. SLOAN: It does. It really does. And this is why the tabloids still
have the image of being sleazy, scurrilous publications. And in some ways,
they are.

GROSS: You say the tabloids are really in trouble now. Their circulations
are down. Why? Why are they having trouble?

Mr. SLOAN: Well, I think that the main reason they're having trouble is
because sensationalism has been discovered and embraced enthusiastically by
the mainstream media. Not just the print media, but the electronic media as
well.

And the tabloids only come out once a week. The daily papers come out every
day, obviously. And radio and television can air a story within minutes after
it develops. And so with all the--one of the worst things that has happened
to the tabloids in recent years is the scandal involving Bill Clinton, because
the daily papers and television were absolutely beating the story to death,
and they weren't leaving the tabloids anything new to come out with. I think
this is one reason that they had to resort to those, you know, Hillary Secret
Diary-type stories.

GROSS: What do you think the tabloids are trying to do now to boost their
circulation?

Mr. SLOAN: Well, I think they're trying a lot of things, but I think that,
basically, they're really grasping at straws. They're trying to keep the hot
celebrity stuff on the covers. But if you'll notice, a lot of the celebrity
stories the tabloids run today are really complementary stories. You know,
they're gossipy, but there's no scandal involved. There's not much zip to
them.

I don't know what the tabloids are going to do. I think that, really, that
they are grasping at straws, and I don't think they know themselves how to
reverse this downward trend in circulation, which, by the way, has been going
on ever since the mid-1980s.

GROSS: Well, Bill Sloan, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. SLOAN: Well, thank you, Terry. It's been my pleasure.

GROSS: Bill Sloan is the author of "I Watched a Wild Hog Eat My Baby!: A
History of the Tabloids."

Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews a new CD by Swag. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: New CD "Catch-All" by Swag
TERRY GROSS, host:

The recent success of an anthology of The Beatles' number one hit singles has
made rock critic Ken Tucker more aware of the number of current bands
influenced by The Fab Four. The best one he's come up with is Swag, a side
project by members of groups as various as Wilco, Cheap Trick and The
Mavericks. Swag's CD is called "Catch-All," which Ken says pretty much sums
up its eclectic music.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Doodle-li-doo-doo. Dwee-diddle-doo-doo.
Doodle-li-doo-doo. Dwee-diddle-doo-doo.

Group of Singers: Doodle-li-doo-doo. Dwee-diddle-doo-doo.
Doodle-li-doo-doo. Dwee-diddle-doo-doo.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Alone she works the lobby of a hotel by the park.
It's going nowhere, and she knows it never stops.

(Soundbite of guitar music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) The little lady...

KEN TUCKER reporting:

If you believe, as I do, that The Beatles made the most purely pleasurable
body of rock music in the history of the form, then the countless number of
bands who have echoed, aped, stolen or mangled their style can be sources of
both annoyance and pleasure. There are times when you say, `Oh, come on.
Can't we get past the 500th variation on "Ticket To Ride" or "I Am The
Walrus"?' And at other times, as on Swag's "I'll Get By," you just give
yourself over to the music and let the warmth of Beatle love these musicians
possess radiate through you as well.

(Soundbite of "I'll Get By")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Let the truth be told, you never turned my world
around. That heart I know you thought you stole is right here safe and sound.
Oh, it was just a play I'd never paid to see. But your little tragedy, it's
all Greek to me.

Group of Singers: I'll get by. I'll get by. I'll get by. I'll get by.
I'll get by. I'll get by. I'll get by. I'll get by.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Save your tears, dry your eyes, run along, no
goodbyes, I'll get by, yeah.

(Soundbite of music)

TUCKER: On that particular cut, I also hear the influence of other '60s acts
such as The Zombies and The Beau Brummels.

So who are these Swaggers? They include: the drummer from Wilco, Ken Coomer,
Cheap Trick's bassist Tom Petersson, and two members of The Mavericks, Jerry
Dale McFadden and Robert Reynolds. The Mavericks is ostensibly a country act,
and Swag cut its CD in Nashville. But it might as well have been recorded in
an Abbey Road recording studio with a song such as "Different Girl.

(Soundbite of "Different Girl")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Maybe I'm wrong, but lately you've been far away.
And yesterday is gone. Secrets you keep to yourself are hidden well. But I
can tell something's wrong.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Remember when we used to dream about a different
world, and you're a different girl.

Group of Singers: Aaaahhhh.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Your ice cream skin...

TUCKER: Is there anything more to this music than the sound of disparate
musicians getting together to re-create a sound and time that seems at once
impossibly over and forever present in our collective mind? I think I've ever
answered my own question by asking it. Anytime you create a paradox like
that, a kind of nostalgia that isn't marred by sentiment, that gains strength
from the enduring vitality of certain chords and certain harmonies, you're
making worthwhile music.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) I've been wasting my days around this place.
Some hearts never change, they just seem strange. But I'm doing my best to
shake these blues, yeah.

I go thinking about then and wondering when we could have it again. But it
all falls through and it all comes tumbling back to you.

Don't listen, don't know me. I'll only leave me lonely.

Group of Singers: You.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Don't listen to me. Don't know me now. I have
to leave it up to...

Group of Singers: You. Ooh, you. Ooh, you.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Well, it's all sinking in...

TUCKER: If only the kids and baby boomers who bought the recent Beatles
collection called "1" were to buy Swag's "Catch-All," as well, the kind of
power pop many of us have enjoyed in a 100 different obscure acts would be in
great shape. It's a dream, but good creative dreaming is part of what this
kind of music is meant to inspire.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
"Catch-All," by Swag.

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Do you want to take a Sunday trip? Do you like
to fly? Roll up the windows, cranking up the heat. Let's ride!

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Do you ever turn the music up? Do you sing
along? Do you have a favorite Cheap Trick song? Put it on!

(Soundbite of music)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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