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Our Dumb-ass Report

It took four years to wind through the court system, but now we know: California residents are allowed to call each other dumb-asses, even print it in the family newspaper if they want to. The 6th Appellate Court decided the landmark case last week, involving two dumb-asses for Hollister City Council, John Vogel and Paul Grannis. They were listed on a Web site of the Top 10 Dumb-asses of San Benito County, a site ghostwritten by Joseph Felice, a former dumb-ass Hollister City Council member who also smeared the owners of one of Hollister's dumb-ass newspapers, Tracie Cone and Anna Marie Dos Remedios. Cone and Remedios' editorial department was at odds with Felice, a dumb-ass mortgage broker, over housing growth in San Benito County. Felice besmirched Cone and Remedios as "filth from up north" and linked Cone's name to a lesbian smut page. (Cone was also No. 4 on Felice's Top 10 Dumb-asses.) Felice also falsely accused one of the paper's columnists of being a child molester. Felice's dumb-ass handiwork earned him the contempt of the international media and a defamation lawsuit, which cost him $50,000 that the paper donated to charity. Vogel and Grannis weren't as fortunate in their battle with Felice, who, as has been mentioned before, is a dumb-ass. In the court's opinion, written by Justice Harry J. Tobias, "dumb-ass" is indeed an offensive term. Trouble is, there's no way to prove somebody is a dumb-ass. It is not a term that conveys "a provably false factual assertion," required to support a claim of defamation. "A statement that the plaintiff is a 'Dumb-ass,' even first among 'Dumb-asses,' communicates no factual proposition susceptible of proof or refutation," Tobias writes. Tobias then breaks down the two words: Calling someone 'dumb' is like calling someone a fool. 'Ass,' meanwhile, is a "general expression of contempt essentially devoid of factual content." What also helped Felice avoid libel charges was the fact that he called himself "Dumb-ass Bob," which should have been a signal to readers that Felice was just joshing around. "In fact, the main purpose of the page seems to be to employ the term 'ass' as often as possible, preferably in conjunction with 'dumb,'" Tobias opined, which made Felice's Web site "puerile" and "wretchedly excessive" but not defamatory. Don't like it? Blame the dumb-ass who wrote the opinion. Is this a great country or what?

Our Favorite New Book

A definitive biography of the Knight Ridder newspaper chain has never been written, not counting the corporate timeline posted on the company's Web site. Until now. Davis (Buzz) Merritt, who edited the Wichita Eagle for 25 years, makes a good case in a 242-page tome that's part journalism textbook, part insider account of the building of an empire. As with any empire-building venture, there's winners and losers, villains and heroes. You don't have to read too far into Knightfall: Knight Ridder and How the Erosion of Newspaper Journalism Is Putting Democracy at Risk to realize who's who. By page 35, we've already learned Knight Ridder's journalistic contributions, as measured in number of Pulitzers, has dropped sharply compared to the 1980s and that the Knight clan, led by patriarch Charles L. Knight, was the credible half of the newspaper chain. Whereas the Ridder clan, led by Herman Ridder, had the business acumen to make newspapers profitable. When the two chains merged in 1974, they were the most powerful print media conglomerate on the planet. So why didn't it produce the best journalism? Neither the Knights nor the Ridders had the foresight to implement a two-tiered voting system when the companies went public in 1969. That left both companies (before the merger) susceptible to the demands of stockholders, impatient for returns even as the economy dipped and turned over the years. It helped none that the Ridders eventually controlled most of the company's governing board. Merritt peppers his page-turning copy with anecdotes about the inner workings of the company, such as the time Tony Ridder, taking over the company in 1995, deflated the hopes of many Knight Ridder editors when he was asked what kept him up at night. "Electronic classifieds," Ridder responded. Obviously, Merritt had hoped for an answer more representative of community-service journalism. What he got was the bottom line. In what some would consider a rather bizarre twist, Tony Ridder reportedly has read Knightfall and "enjoyed parts of it," says Polk Laffoon, KR's VP of corporate relations. Laffoon says he hasn't read the book but his wife is finishing it. "I understand Buzz is quite critical in some respects. I'm sorry he's not kinder to Knight Ridder. That's what happens sometimes." Laffoon did not specify whether his last comment referred to criticism or crappy journalism.

Our Fashion Section

East Side teachers were none too happy with Craig Mann's choice of shirt colors immediately following layoff notices of 800 teachers March 15. That same night Mann, who did not receive the teacher's endorsement last election cycle, wore a pink polo shirt. Several weeks ago, at a Cesar Chavez rally, he again adorned a pink shirt. Pink just happens to be the color teachers have chosen to signify their solidarity in fighting what they see as unjust and unnecessary pink slips. Were teachers ready to accept Mann's alleged gesture of goodwill? Hardly. "We're not buying it," says one teacher, who said Mann was taunting, not embracing, teachers.

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From the April 6-12, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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