- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 8, 2006

Stop the presses. German thieves have stolen a roller coaster, Prince Charles is worshipped on the isle of Tanna, wearing flip-flops is a firing offense, the rock group Kiss has its own brand of coffee, a Welsh sheep thinks it’s a dog, and Friday is the happiest day of the week, this according to esteemed scholars at a well-known British university.

Oh, and an Austrian burglar was apprehended after falling asleep in the bed of one of his victims.

It’s all true, it’s all weird, and it’s all news. Why, it’s weird news — a burgeoning mainstay of journalism that will never die. Indeed, it just gets better and better, or worse and worse, depending on one’s perspective. It’s the tantalizing junk food of the news diet, hopefully read while wearing pajamas and eating Cheez Doodles.

What’s this? A goat did what in front of the queen of England? An Indian elder has been living in a tree for how long? Dogs wear tuxedos at weddings and toupees in Japan?

So much drivel, so little time.

Strange news, though, is serious business. Major news organizations around the planet commit considerable resources to the mystifying and absurd. Associated Press has an entire division devoted to Odd News; it’s Oddly Enough at Reuters news agency. CNN boasts Offbeat News, the BBC has Quirkies, MSNBC Peculiar Postings and CBS News Strange News.

A recent “Strange News” headline at CBS, in fact, read: “New Mexico Courthouse Workers Endure Pigeon Poo.”

Yes, well.

Sooner or later, unhinged news is going to overwhelm all other coverage, drowning out the learned cadence of political analysts with true tales of stupid criminals, heroic pets, puckish elders, bearded children, hidden skeletons, questionable behavior, airborne emergencies, space mysteries, urban myths, medical feats, racy exploits and extraordinary gaffes. It’s the triumph of Ripley’s Believe It or Not over “Meet the Press.”

Florida-based Chuck Shepherd is the veritable scion of such things. He has collected odd-but-true news specimens since 1988; his weekly, trademarked News of the Weird column is featured in 250 newspapers, supplemented by five “News of the Weird” books and a daily News of the Weird blog.

“For some readers, News of the Weird is merely a light diversion from the heavier news of the week,” he notes. “However, for others, it’s much more: a weekly chronicle of the continuing decline of civilization. Or a therapeutic personal benchmark for reassuring yourself that it’s all those other people (not you) who are the problem. Or, for the few who actually wind up in News of the Weird, a monument to lives interestingly lived.”

Mr. Shepherd is not alone. For better or worse, dozens of odd-news compendiums exist for the pajama-clad online, in print or broadcast — including Strange News, Daily Rotten, Fark, Bizarre News, Exploding Cigar, This Is True, Crazy News, Fun Reports, Surfing the Apocalypse, the Daily Hog and the Obscure Store & Reading Room, maintained by none other than esteemed media analyst Jim Romenesko.

Though most of these sources delve into UFO sightings, three-legged-cat stories and rumors of radioactive lipstick, they are not in the same category as, say, the Weekly World News and the National Enquirer. Recent headlines at the Weekly World News included, for example, “I Shot a 23-pound Grasshopper,” “Nessie is Pregnant,” “Aliens Using Email to Seduce Earth Women” and “Bat Boy Found in West Virginia Cave.”

There might be a molecule of truth in such accounts, maybe even an iota. Anything with Elvis, Bigfoot, ventriloquist dummies, soothsayers, weight loss, and either Britney Spears or Bill Clinton is guaranteed front-page material. Weird news, on the other hand, is true, for the most part.

Meanwhile, a pair of observant entrepreneurs have turned the entire state of New Jersey into a weird news empire. Five years ago, Mark Sceurman and Mark Moran began to chronicle the oddities of the Garden State online — at www.weirdnj.com, of course. They were quick to discover that the other 49 states also had bizarre charms, and they since have parlayed the concept into “Weird U.S.,” a prime-time cable TV show on the History Channel with a full line of merchandise.

“History is full of weirdos,” the pair notes after exposing such national landmarks as Melon Heads, Phantom Clowns and the Mystery Spot.

That said, it is time break out the Cheez Doodles and consider that some poor guy had the hiccups for 69 years, a sneeze travels at 100 mph, the average person will eat 35,000 cookies in his or her lifetime and the ancient Egyptians worshipped a sky goddess named Nut. All true.

By the way, our crack research department is still investigating, but the famous phrase, “Truth is stranger than fiction” may itself be fiction. The closest phrase we could find in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations is “Truth is always strange — stranger than fiction,” penned by Lord Byron in 1823.

Jennifer Harper covers media, politics and rumors of radioactive lipstick for The Washington Times’ national desk. Reach her at 202/636-3085 or [email protected]washingtontimes.com.


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