Of rabid nuns and bag ladies

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Portland, Ore. -- You plop your can of pork and beans on the supermarket's checkout belt and move along past the tabloids bleating lurid details of the escapades of this or that starlet.

Then, in the world's blackest ink, you see:

"RABID NUN INFECTS ENTIRE CONVENT" or "BAG LADY'S B.O. KILLS FIVE PEOPLE ON BUS" or "GRANDMA TURNS DOG INSIDE OUT LOOKING FOR LOST LOTTERY TICKET"

Who, you may ask, writes this bilge? For a while it was Tom D'Antoni, a freelance writer and producer of television documentaries.

D'Antoni says the work wasn't easy and it left a dark mark on him. He also wrote the stories, and, yes, he says, he made it all up. But that didn't bother the Florida-based tabloid The Sun, which bought his work in the mid 1980s.

Some of his best (and, he notes, his worst) are detailed in his book, "Rabid Nun Infects Entire Convent," published by Villard Books.

D'Antoni was doing pre-game broadcasts for the Baltimore Orioles in the mid-1980s and not making much money.

He worked as a radio talk show host and, for a few months, "I was the worst television news producer of all time. I hated it." He saw the tabloids and figured he could do at least that well.

Payment ranged from $25 to $50 or so for a headline and story, sometimes more, depending on how prominently it was used.

Some would be on the lighter side -- "WOMAN GOES ON HIGH-FIBER DIET, EATS HER CLOTHES" or "NEW GENETIC DISCOVERY CAN MAKE YOUR DOG SMELL LIKE PIZZA."

D'Antoni landed in Portland in 1997, feeling it would be a good place. "I figured my career in Baltimore was about over," he says. He worked for Oregon Public Broadcasting for six years producing documentaries and was a freelance writer.

For now, he has no interest in returning to his former craft. "But if someone offered me enough money I might try."

He admires the efforts of those who have followed him, like "AMELIA EARHART'S BARF BAG FOUND IN SOUTH PACIFIC," a story that ran in the Weekly World News about two years ago.

"Guys who write this stuff get a kick out of doing it -- they sit around and laugh about it," said Bill Sloan, who wrote the book "I Watched a Wild Hog Eat My Baby," a history of tabloid journalism. "It's popular with high school and college students. Of course, there are still a few little old ladies in tennis shoes out there who will believe anything they see in print."

Sloan said the sensational tabloids are struggling these days and scrambling for a niche.

"It's nearly all celebrity stuff now," said Sloan, who worked for years on the shaggier side of tabloid journalism and who now writes military histories. D'Antoni, a stocky, bearded man of 59 who laughs a lot, says that inspiration for some of his efforts came from living in what he recalls as a depressing environment in Baltimore, his hometown.

Wide credibility was never an issue: "The stuff was written for people who don't think [professional] wrestling is fixed."

D'Antoni once wrote a story with a headline reading "CULT USES HUMAN HEADS FOR BOWLING BALLS." Recently, he said, he learned of a story in an Australian newspaper about a man who killed his friend and used his head for a bowling ball.

"Reality is nipping at my heels," D'Antoni says.

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