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Mea culpa



Two weeks ago, this newspaper published a cover story about a manatee hunt club in the woods of Volusia County [Eat at Doug's, May 22]. The response, as you might expect, was explosive. Some people demanded I cough up my sources and turn in these manatee killers. Others wanted me to introduce them to the Doug's crew. One friend even asked if I had any manatee meat at home. "I've always wanted to try it," he confessed. "I fucking hate manatees."

Only a handful of people asked what I thought was the obvious question: "Is this a joke?"

Answer: Yes it was. For the record, the story didn't happen. Doug's doesn't exist. Dale Koonzte is a figment of my imagination, based loosely on the Dale Gribble character from Fox TV's "King of the Hill." Bub doesn't exist. The shot of Doug's place on the cover is actually a house near downtown Orlando. If there's a manatee-eating club in Central Florida, I don't know about it.

I wouldn't be terribly surprised if one existed, however. Judging by the response to the story, neither would you.

Why would we do such a thing? Isn't our credibility at stake? What's to say this week's cover story isn't a fraud?

First and foremost, we're not a daily newspaper. The rules are different here. We do a lot of things a down-the-middle daily would never dream of -- allowing our writers to express an opinion, for example, or allowing them to use satire to make a point.

Doug's was satire, an obvious exaggeration of the current political climate with special-interest politics taken to the extreme. The Wekiva River Basin is about to be carved up into strip malls and custom homes, the Green Swamp is nothing but an annoyance to developers and landowners and the Everglades really don't need to be cleaned up just yet, or so says our governor. Is it really that far-fetched to imagine a group of manatee munchers poking their heads out of their Volusia County hole, sensing a favorable political climate and deciding this is the time to go mainstream?

No, it isn't.

As anyone who watches TV news knows, last week saw another round of battles between boaters and environmentalists over manatees. For the second time, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission delayed a vote on reducing the status of manatees from "endangered" to "threatened."

Such a status change wouldn't really matter much, because regardless of what the state says, sea cows would still be protected by federal law. Boating groups see such a change as a message to Washington that enough is enough, that people's right to the waterways have been unfairly impeded for the benefit of an animal. Enviromentalism is merely tolerated here in the Sunshine State; it's certainly not embraced. For every "Save the Manatee" license plate screwed to someone's car, there are probably three other people who'd just as soon the damn things stay out of the way of their boat. Our fake petition said it all: "We the people of Florida believe the government has infringed on our private property rights to protect the manatee. We believe state restrictions on boats and manatees as a natural resource should be repealed immediately, and that the state of Florida should use its resources to convince federal authorities that protections on manatees are overzealous and need to be repealed."

Close your eyes and have someone read that passage to you. It's like a flashback to the Republican Revolution of 1994 (continued in 2000). All that's lacking is a call to abolish the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency.

And because we're being all honest and touchy-feely here, I'll go ahead and cop to reason No. 2 for doing Doug's: It was offensive, ridiculous, outrageous and funny. Slaughtering sacred cows is always a good time, doubly so in the case of sea cows. That, by the way, is another thing that distinguishes us from the dailies: We like to have fun occassionally. If you don't know exactly what to expect when you pick up this paper, then we're doing our job.

Yes, it was a fake, and yes, we tricked some people. But we're not going to apologize, and we're certainly not going to put on a show of public flagellation a la The New York Times. The difference between Jayson Blair's work and mine is that I cribbed my story to make a point. Blair, apparently, just wanted to see how much he could get away with.

I'll leave you with this final point: Treat the media -- all media -- skeptically. If you were fooled by "Doug's" consider it a lesson. The story was full of signposts pointing to its lack of veracity: anonymous sources, vague locations, unknown phone numbers. Even the cover blurb advised caution: "You won't believe what's on the menu in Volusia County." Still, a lot of people took it as fact. Many of them journalists. One reporter from a Miami TV station e-mailed me saying, "We journalists wait a long time for a story like this.

Blair fooled the most respected newspaper in the world into buying his whoppers. The national media convinced you that the toppling of the Saddam statue in Baghdad was a spontaneous celebration of freedom. And I convinced some of you there was a cabin in the woods where rednecks eat manatees. Caveat emptor.

Jayson Blair please report to personnel


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