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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

To Sell the Truth

Mark Evanier has an interesting blog ( that often gives an inside look at show business and the entertainment world in general. Here is just one example:

I became a professional writer in 1969 and for the first year or so, I wrote a wide array of magazine pieces, press releases and the occasional comic book. After a while, the comic books became less occasional and I ditched most of the other stuff, not because it wasn't lucrative or challenging but because it involved a lot of "selling" and meeting with editors and going in to meetings. One of the many things I liked about writing comics was that the time I spent on it was like 90% writing and 10% "other." When I wrote for teen magazines and P.R. firms, it was more like 25% writing, 75% "other." Another was that the comic book writing was more honest work.

When I wrote for teen magazines, I ghosted an advice column for a performer who was then all the rage with 14-year-old girls. He agreed to let the magazine slap his name on this column as long as he didn't have to write it or read it or (especially) be embarrassed by anything in it. So we kept it pretty tame. What little mail was actually submitted by readers was either gushy I-love-you fan stuff or letters that said, "I'm 15 and my boy friend insists I prove my love for him." I ran neither. I made up questions and answers about boy-girl relationships...and at the time, I was 17 and had barely had any. So I was probably about as qualified to write the column as any of my readers except for the fact that I could spell.

The publishing firm also published straight gossip magazines for (one supposes) an older audience. One day, the lady who edited the teen magazines told me that the lady who edited the gossip magazines wanted me to write for her, too. I went over to her office and she said she'd like me to handle her next cover story, which was to be about the secret love nest of Elizabeth Taylor and Burt Reynolds. The cover, in fact, had already been designed and sent off to press. I said, "I wasn't aware Elizabeth Taylor and Burt Reynolds were involved, let alone had a secret love nest." The editor looked at me with an expression that seemed to say: "Don't you know how this game is played?"

Within minutes, it was explained to me. The actual existence of any such love nest was irrelevant. The point was that it was a good cover blurb.

She had, in fact, a whole list on her desk of stars who were then "hot" and there was another list of phrases that were deemed commercial. Some claimed X was sleeping with Y. Others said X was breaking up with Y. There were also three-ways — X is leaving Y for Z — and even some four-ways, all of which seemed to involve Sammy Davis Jr. for some reason. An especially popular one was was, "The secret blackmail photos that _____ doesn't want the world to see." The idea was that you'd then take a name from one of the other lists, plug it in and write about (but of course, not show you) the secret blackmail photos that Frank Sinatra didn't want the world to see or the secret blackmail photos that Juliet Prowse didn't want the world to see. You might even insert an adjective like "desperate" or "forbidden." She had a whole page of those words, too. So she'd just scanned the lists, played this oily version of Mad-Libs and come up with Burt's and Liz's love nest. Burt had previously in this magazine had a secret love nest with Joey Heatherton and since that issue had sold well, it was time to give him one with Liz.

My mission, should I decide to accept, was to write an article that would go with the Liz-Burt cover line which, like I said, was already off to the printer. Accuracy, of course, did not matter...and oddly enough, neither did salaciousness. I could write that the secret love nest was a certain hotel suite in Santa Barbara in which both Liz and Burt had stayed at separate times with their then-current mates engaging in naught but monogamy. I could also write that Liz and Burt had checked into a Motel 6 somewhere, paid the six bucks that it then cost to stay in a Motel 6, and had sex in six different positions, six times a day for six weeks. The editor really didn't care which.

I was baffled. I baffled easily at that age. I told the lady I'd feel baited, switched and cheated if I plunked down my coinage for a magazine that suggested Liz Taylor and Burt Reynolds were going at it hot and heavy and instead got a piece about how they'd rented the same hotel room at different times. She said, "So would I but our readers don't."

Feeling myself about to decline a paying assignment for what I think was the first time in my life, I said, "I'd also feel cheated if you did write about Liz and Burt having an affair and there was never any evidence of it in reality." She said, "So would I but our readers don't." She noted that for six years, which was about as long as the magazine had been around, they'd been running a minimum of three cover stories a year about how Liz and Richard Burton would be announcing their divorce any day now. That hadn't happened either but it hadn't harmed their circulation, nor was there any indicator it had impaired the magazine's credibility. (As it turned out, Liz and Dick did divorce a few years later.)

The editor finally grew weary of my naïve questions and asked, "Do you want the assignment or not?" I opted for "not." It crossed some boundary of honesty in my brain, plus it meant working in an area that I obviously did not understand at all.

Oh, I understood the part about wanting to grab newsstand patrons with a hot, scandalous promise on the cover. Even if I couldn't lower myself to do it, I certainly grasped why a magazine would want to do that. What I couldn't comprehend was why, if the magazine didn't deliver what was promised and/or didn't deliver facts that stood even the briefest test of time, people still bought it. I still don't understand that...

...though I do ponder the question every time I watch Fox News.

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