Sunday, October 10, 2010

Extra! Extra!

Gabriella Herkert

Catnapped and Doggone


I’ll admit, reluctantly, that I read the birdcage liner headlines in the checkout line in the grocery. Who could resist? The writers of these scandal sheets know how to lure an audience. Who wouldn’t want to know if the Queen was pregnant with a two-hundred pound alien baby? Except for her, of course. And perhaps Prince Philip. So I’m half way to having a bad afterlife for even touching the devil’s sentinel. Not all the way, since my parsimonious Midwest ancestry prohibits expenditures that constrict brain activity. Even if I could color in the pictures and turn them into a work of art.

I haven’t gone to the dark side even for the lurid extra, extra that could be true. Don’t get me wrong. I believe stories can be made from whole cloth. I believe they are. The libel laws, particularly as applied to public figures, weigh heavily on the side of the first amendment right to free speech even when that written speech eliminates any hope the writer has of passing himself off as sentient. Mostly, I approve of that since I’m not always the most popular position taker and a passionate Devil’s advocate even when I may not personally agree. The red hair is real. But in the end, those blurry-edge-maybe-yes-maybe-no stories are the ones that capture my imagination. Which part is which? How much truth is there in the story and how much innuendo and built in assumption? The best liar, the best con man, the best tabloid writer is not lying. He’s telling the truth and you, the reader, are reaching a different conclusion. It’s the wrong conclusion but it’s the one he wants you to reach and because his words can be reconstrued as fact (or close enough to be excusable errors), he can’t be touched. Trash they may be, but tabloids are elegant writing.

Take my make believe headline. I wrote it for Catnapped. Read while checking out frozen dinners, you might think that my protagonist has man problems – two husbands and a new sugar daddy – as well as being cruel to animals. Worse than that, you might think it’s all true because she’s a lawyer and we know what they’re like. A reputation worse than IRS auditor. Who wouldn’t believe the worst of the worst about them? With this intro, the cover art could be a woman dressed in 1920’s Kenya safari garb with an oiled shotgun slung over her shoulder and a jeep with three men in the passenger seats waiting for a chance to impress. Yep. It’s not the truth of the words, it’s where they take you.
The only bad fact in the headline is that Sara isn’t a lawyer. Like Erin Brokovich, she isn’t a lawyer. She hates lawyers. She just works for them. A quick fact check with the state bar association would have told our intrepid reporter that this wasn’t true. But the risk is low. There are tens of thousands of lawyer jokes. This is not an accident or a planetary anomaly. With the label, comes an entire Samsonite set of reputational baggage, earned or unearned. And it’s not like someone who works at a law firm is going to call up demanding a retraction of the evil “L” word without enough of a cause of action to file a lawsuit. Besides, how do you tell your senior partner boss you feel damaged by the suggestion you are like him? Does that come with a request for a raise in a down economy? I think not.

The bigamist part also isn’t true but since two men did show up at the hospital claiming to be married to our protagonist and there were witnesses that’s going to be a hard one to challenge. Bigamy is a crime. Ironically, since the second “wedding” is void, a second wedding is not actually required to commit bigamy. Merely tricking a person into thinking they are married to you after you’ve had a legal ceremony. Since at least one of the men involved, the actual husband, didn’t know anything about the other man – again with witnesses – our headline writer gets away with this one. It reasonably looks like our heroine has been playing fast and loose with her personal life. So to speak.

Finds millionaire is true. Unfortunately, it follows after the bigamy red light and leads to the assumption that the found millionaire is some sort of former Bachelor contestant instead of, well, less than lively. Then again, for enough cash…

Big cat hunt is the worst and best part of the headline. Big is ephemeral. It’s one of those words impossible to quantify. Technically, big seems to be qualifying the noun cat. So are we talking a big cat? Leopard? Lion? Overfed housecat? Or is big supposed to apply to the hunt? Are we talking native Swahili speakers and water hole gatherings or enlisting the neighborhood watch and three troops of boy scouts? Hunt? Really? I can’t help, even knowing the truth, seeing Elmer Fudd ‘huntin’ wabbits.’ Elmer’s armed. And I’m pretty sure he’s got backup ammo. Hunt is a pejorative word. It’s helpful to remember that scavengers also hunt and nobody needs a weapon.

In the end, the paparazzi sell their papers and my poor protagonist ends up apologizing to her husband, her boss and the local animal rights groups. No one seems to notice she solved her case or found poor Felix (who was not a big cat after missing a few meals). And the world continues to turn.
Thanks for reading, not once but twice, to see the real story.





I’m dying to write headlines for my fellow CMers. Would that be bad?



Shane Gericke said...

Glad to see you read the tabloid headlines too, Gabi. So do I. I even admit to peeking into the pages time to time to see how they handled a story that looks so lurid from the cover headlines. Oft times, it's not nearly as sensational as the headline. Occasionally, the stories are even true--Bill Clinton and Gennifer Flowers was broken by the National Enquirer, as were a few other sex scandals. Even a broken clock is right twice a day :-)

Besides, they're just plain fun to read, if you don't take them too seriously. And don't pay a dime--reading them in line at the grocery is ideal.

Shane Gericke said...

Red hair is kewl!

Gabi said...

You're right. We're getting exactly what we pay for.

Gabi said...

I've never heard it described as kewl before. Neon, Bozo hair even fair warning but never kewl.

Shane Gericke said...

That's cuz redheads are generally kewl. And hot. Can one be hot and kewl at the same time?

Neon Bozo hair? Now I can't wait to see you in person. Just tell the day job you must be at Bouchercon for our Saturday brunch or you'll dye your hair purple!!!

Shane Gericke said...

Oh, and, no, writing headlines for all of us would not be bad. It would be, as Martha used to say, a Good Thing. Headlines are both science and art, and among the more creative endeavors out there. I mean, who can say HEADLESS MAN IN TOPLESS BAR isn't a work of art? Or, FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD. Both from, naturally, the New York Post and/or Daily News.