- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 25, 2006

PORTLAND, Ore.

You plop your can of pork and beans on the supermarket’s checkout belt and move 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.

Mr. 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 up everything. 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.

Mr. D’Antoni was doing pre-game broadcasts for the Baltimore Orioles in the mid-1980s and not making much money. For a time, he was publisher of Harry, Baltimore’s underground newspaper.

“I worked for most of the TV stations in Baltimore. I was the jazz and pop-music critic for Maryland Public Broadcasting,” he says. 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.

“One of my ex-wives got a job on the Sun,” he recalls in an interview. “I wrote her and asked her if she would show some of my work” to the publisher. 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 — such as “Woman Goes on High-Fiber Diet, Eats Her Clothes” or “New Genetic Discovery Can Make Your Dog Smell Like Pizza.” Some others he wishes he hadn’t written: “Mother Bites Off Own Tongue to Feed Starving Child in Ethiopian Camp.”

After some of his darker efforts, he says, he would get a little worried. “I’d think … did this come out of me?’ It drove me nuts thinking this awful stuff could come out of me.”

Mr. 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.”

“Guys who write this stuff get a kick out of doing it — they sit around and laugh about it,” says 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.”

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

“It’s nearly all celebrity stuff now,” says Mr. Sloan, who worked for years on the shaggier side of tabloid journalism but now writes military histories. “They’ll get a germ of a story and start calling around to find some anonymous person to give a quote and hokey up a story about a celebrity scandal. There are grains of truth in some of these things.”

Mr. D’Antoni, a stocky, bearded man of 59 who laughs a lot, says inspiration for some of his efforts came from living in what he recalls as a depressing environment in Baltimore, his hometown. The idea for the dog-turned-inside-out story originated while he was in a lottery line with several elderly women.

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

Mr. D’Antoni once wrote a story with a headline reading “Cult Uses Human Heads for Bowling Balls.” Recently, he says, 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,” Mr. D’Antoni says.

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