Late last month, I noticed sales for my book, Defamers: How Fake News Terrorized a Community & Those Who Dared to Fight It, sharply increased.

The increase coincided with CalCoastNews, once again, generating headlines over a controversy they exclusively reported on. In July, San Luis Obispo Police Chief Deanna Cantrell mistakenly left her firearm inside the restroom of a restaurant. But when she came back to the restroom to retrieve her firearm, it was gone. Though the chief readily admitted to her mistake in a video published on social media, there was a question of whether or not she made an attempt to cover up details leading up to her admission.

After the SLOPD supplied surveillance footage of a person of interest who was possibly involved in taking the firearm, the Morro Bay Police Dept. tipped them off, stating the person in the footage looked like a probationer they were familiar with. This brought detectives to the home of a man who was mistakenly identified as a probationer. After being subjected to a warrantless search of the home, detectives reportedly seized evidence of needles and methamphetamine that were found inside. The man claimed detectives seized his prescribed testosterone medication. As a result of items they found at the home, the man and his wife were arrested and charged with felony child endangerment. The children were taken into protective custody. CalCoastNews insists the children were taken into custody because the home was “dirty,” but offer no evidence pointing to Child Welfare Services making that determination.

Meanwhile, the man responsible for taking the police chief’s firearm returned it, not expecting to be charged. Now the SLOPD has recommended that he face charges and has referred the case to the District Attorney.

The facts alone are shocking, no doubt about it. There’s clearly something wrong here, but with a case as controversial and complex as this, it’s extraordinarily difficult for CalCoastNews to report accurately. It wasn’t surprising to look at the case details and discover accuracy in their “reporting” was sorely lacking. When you look at the controversies they got themselves in for reporting inaccurate information and standing by those inaccuracies, it’s hard to trust them. But in this particular case, the information we have is so shocking on the surface that readers are inclined to believe in the website’s conspiracy theory claims. These claims are presented to further sensationalize a naturally sensational case, further blurring the lines between fact and fiction. Like clockwork, when the local media begins to scrutinize, question or dismiss their claims, CalCoastNews burrows deeper into their flawed editorial narrative like they learned absolutely nothing from their $1.1 million libel lawsuit loss.

Readers have asked for my take on this case. I have some observations about it, but I prefer to refrain from having strong opinions about the case until due process is completed. However, I’m going to touch on CalCoastNews’ methodology for approaching stories like these.

In my book and articles by the New Times, there are several documented instances when the website reported claims inaccurately but refused to make corrections. But they continue to peddle false claims and conspiracy theories because they get attention. They get readership. Every time they get attention — whether it’s good or bad — they get more pageclicks, more impressions and more exposure for their advertisers. Sensationalism is their business model. They knowingly publish false claims and routinely fail to exercise any sort of due diligence or journalistic responsibility to make sure their “reporting” is accurate. They will exercise willful negligence even if that willful negligence hurts people in the community and upends their reputation. All things considered, they should never be taken seriously.

Yet there’s a valid concern that their conspiracy theory-peddling is dog-whistling violence.

Conspiracy theories require gullible minds. If a CalCoastNews-exclusive conspiracy theory is questioned or debunked, there’s a prevailing notion that the one casting doubt is part of said conspiracy. For example, I’ve criticized the website for their obsessed “reporting” on District 3 Supervisor Adam Hill. In turn, I was accused of being a “government troll” and a “paid shill” for the supervisor. When the SLOPD refuted their allegations, CalCoastNews indicated the department was continuing to “cover up” their involvement and their mistakes. When The Tribune looked deeper into this particular case and analyzed some of their allegations, CalCoastNews’ Karen Velie lashed out at them, claiming their articles “lack[ed] context, are not in line with the facts, or appear to repeat city and county press releases.”  Velie would elaborate further by referring to The Tribune as a PR firm for the government and decrying the newspaper for participating in an “ongoing character assassination.” The irony is not lost on me. In short, pushback is considered complicity with conspirators.

Recently, anonymous users have called for violence and force against CalCoastNews’ perceived adversaries, including members of the media and the SLOPD. One anonymous user threatened to shoot the “jack booted Gestapo cops.” Another anonymous user threatened to “confront authoritarian progressives [in SLO] with force if necessary.” Some have linked the police chief with SLO County’s progressive movement, injecting partisanship in a discussion that doesn’t warrant it.The website has worked people into fever pitch, resulting in feelings of hopelessness and violent desperation — with readers believing the only course of action is vigilantism. This is extremely dangerous. The fifth estate was never meant to viciously incite an angry mob.

SLO County residents are curious about the source of this animosity, so they’ve been purchasing my book. I’m grateful for people to learn the truth about CalCoastNews, an organization that is untrustworthy to objectively deliver the news and a safety risk.

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