fake news


Dear Sponsors,

I want to thank you for not only taking the initiative to sponsor a panel on fake news, but also canceling the panel when you realized the event could no longer provide constructive dialogue.

From the onset, it was clear the Cal Poly College Republicans chose to invite panelists like blogger Bill Whittle and right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulus to espouse their derogatory views more than weigh in on “fake news.” They were vastly unqualified to broach the subject. There are many nonpartisan media figures that could’ve discussed fake news, but College Republicans couldn’t come up with any.

According to a statement by College Republicans, they thought Yiannopoulus was “a victim of the fake news media.”

If victims of fake news media are considered qualified panelists, then you should consider me as a future panelist.

One of the event’s sponsors was the Cal Poly Department of Journalism. Oddly enough, a former member of the department’s faculty is an editor of a locally owned and operated fake news site CalCoastNews. For some reason, they also run another news site Cal Coast Times.

Bill Loving is the editor of CalCoastNews and has been during his tenure at Cal Poly when he taught media ethics.

When CalCoastNews was sued for defamation, Loving testified during their trial that as the site’s “gatekeeper,” he believed reporting — which they were being sued over — was accurate.

A unanimous jury disagreed and awarded the plaintiff $1.1 million in damages. Neither Loving nor CalCoastNews apologized for reporting deemed erroneous and defamatory by the court of law.

In light of their guilty verdict, the New Times reported their pattern of publishing defamatory was nothing new, having terrorized grieving families, residents, non-profit organizations and local businesses with accusations that were demonstrably false.

I reported on CalCoastNews’ controversial reporting practices for six years. As a result, their co-owner Karen Velie threatened my former employer and her family, me and my family. One of the threats she made was to write a story in order to humiliate my employer, who was running for Congress at the time. I consider that blackmail.

Since then, Velie published a series of articles and claims about me, falsely accusing me of being a “government troll” paid by a county supervisor, threatening one of her contributors with a firearm; impersonating her online; forgery; personally harassing children and grandchildren of CalCoastNews reporters; “cyber harassment” of CalCoastNews reporters; harassing CalCoastNews advertisers; calling on my followers to personally and physically “harm” her; being somehow involved in placing dead cats on her porch and poisoning her beloved family dog; stalking her at her home; falsely accusing my father of stalking her at her home; that “multiple people” have reported my “stalking” and “cyber harassment” to law enforcement; that I discussed tossing bleach into her daughter’s eyes.

In July last year, Velie attempted to file a restraining order on me after I politely asked her questions about the false allegations she wrote about me. She claimed I physically threatened her and her daughters inside the courthouse where I asked her questions; that I reportedly fled the courthouse with the bailiff chasing me. The bailiff couldn’t recall any of that happening.

The judge found no evidence that I stalked or harassed her, though he admonished me based on her tearful and perjured testimony.

As a result of her allegations, my family and I endured significant mental and physical anguish. I have applied for jobs only for potential employers to turn me down either because of her “reporting” on me or personal retaliation by Velie if she learned I was employed by them. When I found work, I had to keep my professional whereabouts anonymous. I’ve also been the recipient of many harassing messages and death threats from her readers. To this day, I continue to receive harassment from her supporters. Because she discussed purchasing a firearm in her restraining order filing to deal with incidents conjured by her wild imagination, I’ve had numerous conversations with law enforcement about her own behavior.

Recently, Velie filed a lawsuit against the same county supervisor she alleged was paying me to “troll” and falsely claimed I was his “business associate.”

Yes, I know a thing or two about fake news.

Yes, I have spoken up about it and will continue to do so with candor and transparency.

If you are interested in bringing back the idea of a fake news panel, please allow me to participate and set the truth free for my sake and everyone else’s. It’s time to bring integrity back to Cal Poly Journalism Dept. by discussing a fake news site their faculty helped enable.

Best regards,

Aaron Ochs

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.

For many years, the media landscape in San Luis Obispo County has been described as reliable, trustworthy and informative, whether you agree with their editorial positions or not.

Now, residents are second-guessing that reliability. Or, perhaps, they look for reliable information in unreliable places.

Last week, Santa Maria police chief Ralph Martin admitted that he floated a fake news story involving two Guadalupe men being arrested for identity theft. Turns out the two men were held in protective custody after they were made murder targets by a rival gang. Martin said he created the fake story in order to save their lives, which he was successful in doing.

However, this caused a rift in the local media. While the local media understood the chief had ulterior motives in fabricating the story, they were understandably concerned about being played. But one particular website offered a different take: they placed themselves in the story.

“The Santa Maria incident is not the first time a local law enforcement agency issued false information in a press release,” wrote online tabloid CalCoastNews. “Yet, local media are reacting much differently than they did on a previous occasion when law enforcement circulated false information, not to save lives, but presumably to cover for a department’s earlier false statements and possible embarrassment to another law enforcement agency.”

Yes, that CalCoastNews. When they’re not gleefully borrowing stories from more reputable sources, they produce a lot of fake news.

The website was referring to their co-founder Dan Blackburn, who covered the 2010 murder of 15-year-old Dystiny Myers on his website KCCN.tv. At the time, Blackburn reported on surveillance footage showing Myers and her murderers outside a gas station. The footage showed Myers getting beaten in a covered bed of a truck while two cops nearby were oblivious to what was unfolding. The SLO County Sheriff’s Dept. denied such video existed and Blackburn was, in fact, criticized for his reporting. Then the video surfaced and witnesses confirmed the details in Blackburn’s report.

But that was a time when Blackburn actually practiced journalism. Now his words are coming back to haunt him.

“But rather than simply remaining quiet and issuing the appropriate ‘no comment’ in response to KCCN.tv’s report, a decision was made somewhere along the chain of command [at the Sheriff’s Dept.] to create a new reality,” wrote Blackburn. “To fabricate. To equivocate. To prevaricate. To falsify.”

Over the past several years, CalCoastNews has gained notoriety from publishing fake stories: from falsely claiming a Cayucos resident’s hand was chewed off by a mountain lion to falsely claiming a young Los Osos girl committed suicide as a result of bullying to claiming a county supervisor was somehow involved in one of their writers getting arrested for suspected DUI. I could go on, but why? Google them.

According to the County of San Luis Obispo government, CalCoastNews co-founder Karen Velie filed a legal claim against the same supervisor in November. According to Velie, the supervisor’s criticism of her website caused her to lose advertising revenue and she’s seeking damages. Specifically, she claims Hill reportedly harassed and threatened her advertisers.

I don’t know if her claims are true. She never published any evidence.

Los Osos resident Linde Owen

But that hasn’t stopped people from praising the website and spouting their allegations as fact at government meetings.

A frequent public comment speaker at County Board of Supervisors meetings, Los Osos resident Ben DiFatta regularly and literally reads off the website’s allegations to a disinterested chambers.

At the Dec. 6 BOS meeting, Los Osos resident Linde Owen randomly promoted CalCoastNews as being an “investigative watchdog” that “balances out The Tribune and the New Times.” Five years earlier, Owen repeated allegations by the website that falsely claimed the children of former local and county officials were engaging in drug use.

DiFatta and Owen are not the only residents that have shown their pure, unadulterated submission to fake news.

Websites like Facebook and Google have given fake news outlets the appearance of legitimacy by prominently appearing in search results and news feeds. CalCoastNews happens to be listed as a “trusted site” for Google News. Fortunately, despite all the backlash they’ve received for the dissemination of fake news about the presidential election, Facebook is now patenting new tools to identify and reduce objectionable content.

But no proactive measures to stymie the insurgence of fake news in our news feeds will alter one’s personal perception of the truth. Take this CNN segment, for instance, involving reporter Alisyn Camerota fact-checking some Donald Trump voters. The video is painful to watch, but it goes to show: for many, the facts don’t matter. Clearly it’s a bipartisan problem.

How do we combat the fake news epidemic? There’s no simple answer. The best we can do is combat fake news with real news, and ensure that real news drowns out the clickbait.