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Elvis is alive in HCC classroom

October 31, 2004|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - In Bob Savitt's classroom, students will be encouraged to talk about love slaves, Bigfoot, Elvis Presley, a 200-pound baby and aliens (the ones who've met with President Bush).

Extra credit might be given to whomever works them all into a single headline.

Savitt's adult education class, "Weird and Wacky World," will be Dec. 1 and 8 at Hagerstown Community College's Valley Mall Training Center.

Normally, college is an institution of truth, but in this case half-truths and shameless fabrications will be part of the curriculum.

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Savitt will rummage through Weekly World News, the National Enquirer, the Globe and other alluring publications at supermarket checkout counters and try to explain them.

Like so many, Savitt, of Myersville, Md., noticed the grabby, trashy headlines as he bought groceries.

"You want to pick it up, but it's (considered) unacceptable or unintellectual," he said.

When Savitt retired, he decided to look further into tabloid magazines, how they evolved and who puts them together.

"As research, I was allowed, in my mind, to subscribe to these things," he said.

Savitt, 58, has a doctorate in foreign relations from Georgetown University.

He said he worked in intelligence for the U.S. Defense Department, then focused on arms control while working for the State Department.

He also served as legislative director for then-U.S. Sen. William S. Cohen, R-Maine, who went on to become secretary of defense under President Clinton.

Savitt likes looking at the past.

He has lectured on "The Golden Age of Radio" at Washington County Free Library.

He's a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and is working on a book about the Blue Ridge League, the local version of professional baseball from 1915 to 1930.

Savitt went back to the 1800s to trace the history of tabloids.

Around the 1830s, he said, penny papers started catering to the masses instead of the elite.

Even back then, sex and crime had appeal, he said.

Today's supermarket tabloids can be traced to Generoso Pope Jr.'s purchase of the failing New York Enquirer in 1952.

Savitt said Pope turned it into roughly what the Weekly World News is today. He got the idea from a traffic jam caused by rubberneckers gawking at mangled bodies, Savitt said.

Among today's tabloids, the Weekly World News usually runs the most outlandish "news" and headlines.

Pope's formula worked. Savitt said circulation went up from about 17,000 to about 250,000 by 1958.

In the mid- to late-1960s, the National Enquirer, as Pope renamed the paper, made its way into supermarkets.

As the National Enquirer became relatively respectable, dishing out tons of celebrity gossip, Pope created the Weekly World News to take over its former role.

"He began to funnel the outrageous stuff, the funny stuff" to the Weekly World News, Savitt said.

In his class, Savitt also will delve into how the Enquirer was considered groundbreaking with its coverage of the O.J. Simpson murder case.

"But if you're paying for news (information), how legitimate is it?" he said.

Savitt said he has taught a version of the tabloid class in a few locations, but he's expanding it for HCC to make it interactive.

Registration, which costs $19, will be accepted up to Dec. 1, according to HCC spokeswoman Beth Stull.

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