This week, I made my 2019 book Defamers: How Fake News Terrorized a Community & Those Who Dared to Fight It available for free as an electronic copy. You can download it by clicking here.
I made my book free because, as of late, I’ve seen a ton of links shared to Cal Coast News articles on social media. Every time that happens, there is always someone who will remind someone who shares their links that Cal Coast News is a controversial source. And every time they’re told CCN is controversial, the offer the following counterpoint: What makes them so controversial? They publish stories that the mainstream media doesn’t publish. Or sometimes, people who know they’re controversial will say something to the effect of Cal Coast News being “imperfect,” but their hearts are in the right place.
It’s not as simple as that. But if I were to summarize them in a nutshell, I’ll just say that Cal Coast News is known for spreading misinformation and disinformation without making standard disclosures of who their key benefactors of said disinformation are. And if one were to say, “Wait, there are a number of issues with your reporting,” they will retaliate against them in oddly extraordinary ways that more reputable news organizations wouldn’t dare to even consider. They also happen to be the first SLO County-based media organization to lose a libel lawsuit and owe more than a million in damages — only for them to turn that around, claim the lawsuit is an elaborate conspiracy to shut them down, and lose that case as well in court.
Right now, Cal Coast News is in hot water for alleging voter fraud and misconduct of the San Luis Obispo County-Clerk Recorder by citing known operatives for the Republican Party of SLO County without disclosing they are operatives. Yes, the very same Republican Party of SLO County that literally endorses CCN right on their homepage as the “best place to get facts about local politics.” It’s rather jarring for a political party to outright endorse an publication on their homepage and put up a link for them to subscribe. And before you say, “But the Democrats do that,” fret not. I checked their website. They haven’t endorsed any news source.
This week, readers have asked me great frequently asked questions that I would like to answer right here.
Your book was published in 2019, just a year before District 3 Supervisor Adam Hill committed suicide and two years before the Department of Justice revealed he solicited and accepted bribes from cannabis mogul Helios Dayspring. If Cal Coast News’ bribery allegations about Hill were true, how does that square up with every other allegation they made about him over the years?
It’s not accurate to say, “Well, Cal Coast News was right about Supervisor Hill so they’re probably right about everything else.” They made several bold allegations about Hill that centered around personal retaliation they reportedly received by him. They accused him of orchestrating the poisoning of Cal Coast News co-founder Karen Velie’s dog; orchestrating Velie’s DUI arrest in 2013; orchestrating the “kidnapping” of her grandchildren by Child Welfare Services; orchestrating the libel lawsuit they ultimately lost for $1.1 million and lost on appeal; using “trolls” and agents to demean them and shut down their operations. They’ve had years to present their evidence to the public and the courts but failed at every turn. So while they were right about the bribes Hill received, Cal Coast News still has an abysmal batting average for accuracy. They may have hit a home run here and there, but struck out for most of the season.
Has Cal Coast News ever responded to the bombshell allegations you made about them and Velie in your book?
Surprisingly, they haven’t responded in an official capacity. I did hear about Velie writing her own book about her experiences as the co-founder for Cal Coast News. But so much time has passed between the time I published my book and when her book ultimately comes out that I don’t think her counterpoint will resonate with the general public. Maybe her dwindling base of followers will lap it up. But her reputation and Cal Coast News’ notoriety has preceded them. And ever since they lost their libel case, their credibility took a serious hit. If anyone wants to check out another news that isn’t behind a paywall, they’re going to check out KSBY-TV or New Times because those sources don’t have as much baggage. That said, I’m currently caught between morbid curiosity about how they would revise history in spite of their litany of losses and moving on from their ongoing drama; I’m inclined to do the latter, not the former.
Have you experienced any kind of retaliation by Cal Coast News after Defamers was published?
Other than the occasional jab in their comments section on their website or the one-off mention on local radio, I haven’t experienced any retaliation by them since the book was published. However, one of their contributors, former Grover Beach mayor Debbie Peterson, echoed their false allegations about me in her 2022 book and cited non-existent “proof” that I was a hired “troll” who coordinated with Supervisor Hill to harm Cal Coast News. There are a few reasons I haven’t endured any retaliation from them directly.
For one, I’ve scaled back my criticism of them and concentrated my efforts instead on holding our local institutions accountable. In that sense, our goals on paper are aligned. They claim they investigate unsavory business and government practices. But as of late, I’ve returned to my activist roots by acting on actual and potentially unsavory government practices in my community as part of the solution, not the problem. I feel comfortable in this role and feel the role of media critic can be passed onto someone else.
After Supervisor Hill passed away, Cal Coast News lost their conspiratorial connecting thread from Hill to me. Additionally, last year, the California 2nd District Appellate Court definitively ruled that Velie provided no evidence showing Hill worked with “trolls” or “agents” to do his bidding and harm Cal Coast News. Some of my criticism of their website was included in her packet of evidence submitted to court. They no longer have to take my years of denying their false conspiracy theory allegations on face value. The courts have spoken.
Lastly, I couldn’t care less what they do on any given day other than what they’ve sought to disrupt on a large scale — so I’m not nipping on their heels often enough to merit any sort of fiery retort from them. Fact of the matter is nothing I say or do will magically make their website disappear. They’re still online, churning out their sensationalism with reckless abandon. I can’t control that. They know that. I’m at peace with them knowing that as it was never my goal to shutter their operations to begin with. My goal is about education and relaying my experiences with them to the public.
There are some who have criticized you for being the pot calling the kettle black. Do you see an equivalence between what they do and how you’ve conducted yourself?
That’s a great question. I wish I could tell you, “I have a stellar reputation in the journalism field.” But I’ve made my fair share of mistakes and occasionally continue to do so. Many respectable writers, authors and journalists have. I try not to make mistakes, but it happens. Let’s be realistic. When I was writing Defamers, I knew that credibility and trust had to be established with the reader. In order to do so, I had to self-analyze and face certain inconvenient truths about how I conducted myself in the past. Many of the mistakes I’ve made were borne from inexperience from dealing with retaliation and exasperation from being retaliated against. But I strongly believe in my overall work product and always strive to be better. If someone holds me accountable for when they feel I go astray, that actually helps.
I argue there is no equivalence between them and I. I readily admit to making mistakes and will correct the record when necessary. I haven’t been sued for libel and don’t plan on putting myself in that situation any time soon. And when people vehemently disagree with me, I never think to myself: How can I ruin their reputation? In fact, I’ve made more inroads in the community by making myself more accessible to those critics and giving them the opportunity to interact with me without casting judgment — if they’re civil, that is. If they’re not, I move on. But I’m grateful to the many friendships I’ve made as a result of reaching out to those with thoughtful dissenting views.
In Defamers, you reveal that you were reported to law enforcement for criticism you levied at private citizens who spoke at SLO County Board of Supervisors meetings. Do you feel it’s possible for you to work with them should your path cross with theirs?
That’s an interesting question that requires some context. Several years ago, I criticized a handful of Los Osos residents who regularly spoke at SLO County Board of Supervisors meeting. These were people who happened to cite Cal Coast News articles. At the time, I thought some of the comments they made were nutty enough to poke fun at them with a series of silly but harmless memes. Next I know, I read on Cal Coast News that the people I poked fun at felt my comments were unlawful and complained to law enforcement. Nothing came out of that. First Amendment is wonderful, isn’t it? But I was slack-jawed from that whole ordeal, especially when I learned from law enforcement that Los Osos resident and self-styled “government watchdog” Julie Tacker had coordinated that whole effort to suppress my free speech. She openly bragged about that. Why? Because I criticized her public comments, voting record and conflicts of interest. That’s textbook fascism. And because she staked her personal reputation on a lawless effort that bore no fruit, that’s her personal albatross, not mine. She has to live with that. I don’t.
I’ve joked about how this was a botched effort to “cancel” me. I don’t believe cancel culture exists, though. What we do have is an increasing appetite for accountability and respect in our society. There are certainly people who go overboard to ensure that accountability happens, but that doesn’t lessen the importance of accountability itself. Years later, I look back at what happened as a teaching moment to elevate the standard of decorum — not because those residents were right to report me, but because I was wrong to go down that road when I didn’t really need to.
Would I work with them in the future? That really depends on the situation. It’s easy to hold personal grudges, but it’s hard to live with said grudges when you need their cooperation to do what’s right for the community. If they ever want to make amends, they know where to find me. But in the interim, I’m comfortable charting my own path and learning valuable lessons along the way.
What are the lessons you’ve learned from the years you’ve spent dueling with Cal Coast News and their supporters?
Keep an open mind. Keep an open mind because facts will almost always shatter any preconceived editorial narrative. There are so many nuances to matters of public interest that it’s not credible to put your thumb on the scale and boldly take a side. If you do, people are going to ask questions, be skeptical and rightfully so.
Reach out to people, get attributable quotes and talk to them. I’m not saying any journalist or writer to befriend a source for a story, but treat everyone involved in a story like human beings, not objects you can stick pins in to juice up a story. Let the comments they make and the facts you uncover dictate the story. At some point, the story writes itself. You’re just the conduit that puts everything together. And if you leave your ego and personal grievances about the subject matter out of the story, congratulations! You just wrote something that people will want to read naturally. No need to exaggerate, sensationalize or lie. No need to go down the inescapable rabbit hole of deceit.
And if you don’t know something, ask. If Google doesn’t provide the answers you seek, ask someone who knows. Citing an authority figure on something you can’t credibly paraphrase based on personal knowledge will make any news article you write stronger, not weaker. Who knows? You might actually learn something new — something that will make you improve as a writer or journalist as you further venture into journalism in the “post-truth” era.
A lot has happened in SLO County since 2019. Can we expect a follow-up to Defamers?
I’m not going to rule anything out. Never say never.