CalCoastNews: Fake News, Not Free Press

It’s fascinating to watch the Trump White House deal with free press. They’re trying to legitimize the president’s frenzied Twitter rants about “fake news” and the “fake media,” and spin any critical reporting of him as antithetical to actual facts. Then on Feb. 24, after the president told attendees at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference that “nobody loves [the First Amendment] more than me],” the White House blocks several news outlets from their press briefing.

The one who officiated the barring of news media, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, told Politico, back in December, that the Trump administration would not ban a single news outlet, adding, “Conservative, liberal or otherwise, I think that’s what makes a democracy a democracy versus a dictatorship.” But two months later, just one month into Trump’s presidency, a number of publications were banned, including Politico.

Trump supporters were quick to point out that President Barack Obama treated FOX NEWS the same; that some equivalency could be established. It’s true that the Obama administration pushed back against FOX NEWS and stated that they had an “ideological bent,” the White House never banned them from press briefings nor did they identify FOX NEWS as “enemies of the American people.” For a long time, Obama administration officials did not come on FOX NEWS programs, but they didn’t try to undermine the so-called “fair and balanced” network’s ability to cover his administration.

Then there’s the argument from Trump supporters that he should be antagonistic toward the press because they’ve been antagonistic toward him. But there’s a difference between antagonism and factual reporting. It’s understandable that Trump supporters feel like he’s not getting a fair shake. However, because the president is so prolific in broadcasting false and misleading claims, there’s more for the press to cover, naturally. For Trump, constantly critical coverage is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

While this news developed, one of my journalist colleagues challenged me to look at the controversy surrounding local tabloid CalCoastNews as it relates to what’s unfolding at the Trump White House.

To recap, CalCoastNews is a website that brands itself as an “investigative reporting” news outlet. Recently, their co-founder Karen Velie filed a lawsuit, claiming in part that the County of San Luis Obispo has denied her “equal access” to press releases, public documents and interviews. Velie claims this is retaliation over her critical reporting on County officials, including District 3 Supervisor Adam Hill. Though Hill is the only defendant named in her lawsuit, Velie claims a number of County officials have made disparaging or derogatory remarks about her.

Full disclosure: I’m also mentioned in her lawsuit, though she falsely claims that I’m Hill’s “business associate.” In an update on her GoFundMe page, where she is raising money for legal expenses, Velie falsely claims that I’m one of the supervisor’s “paid flunkies,” and that I “demean” CCN daily. Velie is fully aware that her claims are false. Velie is raising funds for another lawsuit she’s involved in: a defamation lawsuit filed against her by Arroyo Grande businessman Charles Tenborg. The trial is slated for March 6.

I was deposed by CalCoastNews for their lawsuit and testified under oath that I was not paid by the supervisor to criticize their reporting. Velie knows the falsity of her claims because I testified under oath that I was not paid by the supervisor, she was in the room when I testified, and she has not provided a shred of evidence to back up her lie. Velie has also stonewalled my requests to release the transcript of my deposition where I stated the facts and refuted her lie on the record.

At no point did she provide any evidence that she was denied “equal access” to County public records.  The federal judge presiding in her case agreed and dismissed her case in federal court with prejudice. Although the judge ruled that she could re-file her case at the state level — which she did — her “evidence” remains lacking. By all accounts, Velie’s case is likely to be dismissed for the same reasons the federal judge gave.

As their defamation trial is rapidly approaching, CalCoastNews will likely continue to ride the wave of outrage among journalists concerned that their First Amendment rights are being oppressed or otherwise undermined by government officials. At first glance, it appears CalCoastNews is a victim of “fake news” shaming by the bureaucratic elite, but court records show otherwise. They are a sophomoric far cry from mainstream media outlets like the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and CNN — all of them were barred from the White House press briefing on Feb. 24.

After condemning the White House’s actions, Fox News’ Shepard Smith discussed Trump’s bashing of the media as “fake news.” He described “fake news” as “stories that are created often by entities pretending to be news organizations solely to drive clicks and views based on nothing of substance.”

Using that rubric, CalCoastNews has literally built their legal case on fake news, and has used fake news to draw in readership, donations and sympathy. That’s no alternative fact.

See you in court, Karen.

Author: Aaron Ochs

Aaron Ochs is a local columnist, entrepreneur and founder of SLO Truth. Ochs is also a member of the Progressives of San Luis Obispo County club.