Pro wrestling has long been a form of entertainment borrowing from life. Increasingly, however, life seems to borrow from pro wrestling.
Consider this: The current President of the United States is a WWE Hall of Fame inductee who hosted two of the first five Wrestlemanias and managed a performer at a third. The head of the Small Business Administration is the former CEO of the billion-dollar WWE conglomerate. Seven-time champion Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s ascent from wrestling to Hollywood feels destined for a turn to Washington.
And, increasingly, professionals in more mainstream segments of media borrow tried-and-true tactics of the squared circle to garner attention.
As a longtime fan of this particular low-brow form of entertainment; this intersection of sport and drama; this odd slice of Americana, the pro-wrestlization of culture concerns me. Perhaps no appropriation of the wrestling world is as mystifying, nor as troubling, as the rise of fake news.
American society finds itself at a bewildering and disconcerting time in its history. Millions believe the unverifiable ramblings of charlatans, snake-oil merchants and crackpots as legitimate, while dismissing reputable journalists and outlets as fake news.
For wrestling fans of the late 1990s and early 2000s, such as myself, the fake news phenomenon is a bad case of deja vu — albeit with much higher stakes.
In those early days of widespread internet availability, myriad websites catering to wrestling fans surfaced. Some were the online versions of hard-copy newsletters that existed for years, sometimes decades. Some of these outlets — The Wrestling Observer, Pro Wrestling Torch — were wrestling’s version of newspapers, owned and operated by proprietors who took journalistic approaches like Dave Meltzer and Wade Keller.
That’s not to imply wrestling’s newsletters, dismissively nicknamed dirt sheets, weren’t without critics. Below is footage from 1995 of a man with a horrible spray tan and shaky track record disparaging the reputation of a reporter. Foreshadowing at its finest.
In the above clip, Hulk Hogan declares, “The internet’s got the scoops.”
What the internet had in the years to come were outrageous claims of talent jumping between companies, promises of leaked photos, insider bombshells…all of it as believable as Hulk’s leg drop. Put in other words: Fake news.
Fledgling wrestling sites generated revenue through clicks, solicited through outright lies. Some of the more notorious sites damn near ruined users’ computers with nefarious spyware.
Many of the fake news tactics employed on these wrestling websites at the turn of the millennium should be recognizable to all internet users today — only, instead of ads promising SEE STACY KEIBLER’S TOO-HOT-FOR-TV APPEARANCE AFTER RAW!, they read: YOU WON’T BELIEVE THE RADICAL TRANSFORMATION THIS FORMER ’80S CHILD STAR UNDERWENT!
You know exactly the type of ad to which I refer — and they are made all the more infuriating, considering established outlets, employing honest-to-goodness journalists, run these advertisements. One might expect this of a wrestling site, given its reputation as a lower form of entertainment.
However, below is a screenshot from a nationally recognized sports media outlet, employing the very same strategy in 2017 the worst wrestling sites pursued 16 years ago:
Outlets do this to generate revenue, but it’s unwittingly helped fuel the proliferation of fake news — just as newspapers giving away their product for free online in the 1990s unwittingly damaged the industry in irreparable ways. Shame, then, that traditional media emulated the worst habits of pro wrestling media, and not one of the smarter strategies of the latter.
After all, the established “dirt sheet” publishers charged subscription fees for their online product, as well as the hard copies.