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CalCoastNews editor Bill Loving

2016 is the year that blurred the line between perception and reality.

On the national level, many blame the prevalence of fake news as helping sway the election in Donald Trump’s favor. Hillary Clinton echoed similar sentiments, calling fake news an “epidemic” with real-world consequences. Recently, Facebook rolled out tools to combat fake news and enlisted several fact-checking organizations to dispute fake news posts. While some are taking steps to combat fake news nationwide, we’ve been relatively silent on fake news locally.

Earlier this month, I wrote about SLO County’s fake news problem: CalCoastNews. Claiming to be an “on-line independent news source producing in-depth investigative news in the public interest,” CalCoastNews has produced a lot of original articles — that were proven to be fake or severely misleading — while purloining original content from other local sources and claiming it as their own. Many of my readers know I’ve covered them for a couple of years now and they’re familiar with my refrain. This year, I published my personal experiences with them in detail.

They don’t like to be criticized. They retaliate. The local media is understandably hesitant to criticize for fear of retaliation. Naturally, I’ve been one of their more prominent targets.

This year, CalCoastNews did something that most reputable journalists don’t do: depose their critics. In September, I was subpoenaed to be deposed by the website for a defamation lawsuit that I’m not involved in. When I was deposed, it dawned on me that most of the questions had nothing to do with the case; it was more or less like an interrogation about my commentary and whether or not I was paid to criticize them. Based on their questioning, I learned they were pursuing a conspiracy theory that I was paid by their adversaries to write about them with a stated goal of shutting down the website.

I debunked their conspiracy theory, but that didn’t stop them from writing a mostly fictionalized account of my testimony.

The article was called “Public officials tied to cyber harassment of CCN.” Though the article has an ambiguous byline (CCN Staff), I received confirmation that it was written by co-founders Karen Velie and Dan Blackburn, both of whom were present at my deposition. In their article, they made a series of allegations based on what I allegedly said. Around the time the article was written, CalCoastNews did not have a copy of my transcript, so they never actually quoted me or could point to where I said what they claimed I said. Instead, they paraphrased. They made up my words.

For legal reasons, I provided detailed corrections to CalCoastNews editor Bill Loving, who was not present at the deposition.

Loving responded to my email, “Based on [my] conversation [with Velie] and [Velie’s] recollection of your deposition […] CalCoastNews will keep the story online.” Loving didn’t specifically address any of the corrections I made, opting instead to rely solely on recollections from a discredited writer with an outstanding personal bias against me.

I kid you not: Loving is the co-author of “False Impressions – How Digital Editing is Altering Public Discourse,” a report that detailed libel law as it applies to “digital manipulation of quotes and video.” The report, which was published GSTF International Journal of Law and Social Sciences in Dec. 2012, took aim at news that “create[d] deception through the use of manipulative editing,” and referred to inaccurate claims made by conservative media sources that misquoted Democrats. CalCoastNews is a predominantly conservative media source, having staked their reputation on attacking prominent Democrats throughout SLO County while featuring ads of conservative candidates and the SLO County Republican Party.

“Digital editing now allows persons to change the words and meanings of digital statements made by persons allowing the creation of damaging statements that appear to be coming out of the mouths of the person whose quote is being manipulated,” Loving wrote, explaining the book’s content on LinkedIn.

But that’s exactly what happened. Of all people, Loving should have been more concerned with what his site publishes. One would think an author of books and reports describing the legal ramifications of digitally manipulating quotes would be more concerned about an article paraphrasing court testimony.

Instead, he wrote this to me:

“You have no credibility,” Loving wrote. “Your continued falsehoods mean that there is no reason for me to believe anything you write, either on your website or in an email.”

To date, the website has refused to publish the fact that I issued corrections to them; that their “reporting” on my deposition was challenged. Though they updated their story about me with paraphrased quotes from people I mentioned in my testimony, CalCoastNews never acknowledged my contentions that my “quotes” were, in fact, digitally manipulated.

Aside from serving as editor and publishing discredited news, Loving is also a tenured journalism professor at Cal Poly. He’s been teaching at the university since 2008. He teaches “Media Law,” “Beginning Reporting and Writing,” and “Journalism Ethics,” ironically.

“I teach journalism because I believe in democracy,” writes Loving on his LinkedIn page. “If journalists do not do their jobs, democracy will fail because people will then have to decide based on the shrill voices of those who would manipulate the public for their own gain.”

Loving is no stranger to controversy, having been involved in a public personnel dispute with the former Liberal Arts dean and colleague Teresa Allen. At the time, CalCoastNews covered the spat extensively and insinuated the dean and Allen were in a romantic relationship. The dispute led to Loving being ousted from his role as chair of the journalism department. In 2014, Loving filed an open records lawsuit against the university after he and his students were unable to obtain information about the campus’ flu preparedness plans. Loving filed the suit as a way to ensure transparency.

“He is not willing to let government agencies and bureaucrats dictate what people can know,” wrote CalCoastNews of Loving.

To date, neither CalCoastNews nor Loving have made my deposition transcript public. Loving has allowed his website to dictate what readers can know and no one else.

In October, I filed a request to obtain a copy of my transcript with the court reporter. According to California law, the only way someone can obtain their deposition transcript is to receive permission from the plaintiff and defendant’s legal counsel. In late October, the plaintiff’s counsel immediately authorized the release, but CalCoastNews — a website that demands transparency from everyone else except themselves — did not.

All of this occurred while they’re awaiting their defamation trial. In 2012, CalCoastNews published an article, claiming that Arroyo Grande businessman Charles Tenborg illegally hauled hazardous waste and that he allegedly bragged about skirting the law at a meeting CalCoastNews failed to specify. When they set up a page to raise funds for their legal defense, CalCoastNews alleged that the lawsuit against them was actually a conspiracy hatched by their critics, particularly Supervisor Adam Hill, to shut them down. The money raised would go toward the discovery process.

By publishing content about the lawsuit that they know is in dispute and by refusing to release my transcript, Loving and CalCoastNews are poisoning the jury pool for their upcoming trial. Remember when Loving talked about those “shrill voices of those who would manipulate the public for their own gain”? I do.

But don’t take my word for it. Look at the evidence.

Since the defamation lawsuit was announced, CalCoastNews was the host of several anonymous, defamatory comments directed at Tenborg. They never removed those comments, despite being in litigation with him. One commenter uploaded a YouTube video from Tenborg’s former employee, who claimed Tenborg illegally disposed hazardous waste. The employee, Aaron Wynn, committed suicide after making that video. The commenter speculated that Wynn may have been murdered.

For the record, the same anonymous commenter predicted one year earlier that I would be deposed for the lawsuit. Suffice to say, I believe CalCoastNews writers authored those comments.

While news sites shouldn’t be held accountable for everything readers say on them,  it’s worth noting cases when sites officially dignify anonymous comments.

On Oct. 25, CalCoastNews published this Facebook post:

CalCoastNews advertised this post throughout Facebook. This graphic shows a woman with her mouth covered. The whistleblower, in question, is Wynn. The post strongly implied that Wynn was killed as a result of blowing the whistle on Tenborg. It’s not clear if Bill Loving personally authorized this post — which remains online — but he’s ultimately responsible for it, given he’s the editor. The post was a link to an article announcing their upcoming trial. The article included a link to their GoFundMe page.

For a prolific Cal Poly journalism professor to knowingly obfuscate the facts and social-engineer public perception — under the flimsy guise of “investigative journalism” — is damning.

So what does the journalism department think of Loving?

Earlier this year, an alumnus once involved with the department claimed that Loving was not that popular among the faculty; that there was some sort of debate about Loving and his credibility, given his involvement with a website that routinely abandons basic journalism ethics. But according to multimedia journalism instructor Patrick Howe, no discussion or debate about Loving was taking place. When I reached out to journalism chair Mary Glick, she sidestepped the issue, stating that she won’t comment on her colleague’s extracurricular activities.

Here’s why the Cal Poly journalism department and the university should take issue with Loving’s involvement with CalCoastNews.

Bill Loving approved several of CalCoastNews’ discredited articles, including one that failed a judicial review by the second district appellate court. Loving also approved articles from a writer who accused a county supervisor of playing a role in her 2013 DUI arrest and the “kidnapping” of her grandchildren. The publishing of these articles created a public controversy that resulted in a sharp rebuke from the San Luis Obispo Police Department and SLO County Social Services. The same writer, Karen Velie, terrorized a grieving family of a young suicide victim by falsely claiming she was a victim of bullying. That article spurred an investigation by the County Sheriff’s Department and the local school district, which turned up nothing.

Without expressing any sort of introspection or remorse, CalCoastNews justifies their “reporting” by explaining these issues are a matter of public interest. That’s debatable, given the subject behind their most controversial and debunked work was them. While most reputable news sources come to terms with their mistakes, CalCoastNews publishes pasteurized, one-sided accounts to exclude any fault of their own. They created controversies that became a matter of public interest. Frankly, that’s not journalism.

I may not like what CalCoastNews does, but from an objective standpoint, the articles I mentioned would never be deemed fit to print by a reputable news source. Those articles most certainly would not survive a journalism professor’s red pen.

The Cal Poly Faculty Code of Ethics states, “As teachers, professors encourage the free pursuit of learning in their students, they hold before them the best scholarly and ethical standards of their discipline.” Loving and his website fall well below the ethical standards of that discipline, but don’t take my word for it.

The Cal Poly journalism department loses credibility by having Loving as a professor and an example of Cal Poly academic excellence. Journalism students lose out when their professor teaches ethics in the classroom, writes about journalism ethics, and sells fake news on the side, and they don’t know about it. For the sake of transparency, they should know, but then again that would be the ethical thing to do. At Cal Poly it’s too much to ask them to practice what they teach.