WARNING: This is one of my longer columns. Read only if you’re bored.
Reddit is an interesting place. There are a number of communities, or “subreddits,” where people can talk about a number of interests and hobbies. It’s rather limitless. One can easily go down the rabbit hole and find a community that appeals to their interests. Subreddits can also be categorized by city, town, region and state. Naturally, there is a San Luis Obispo subreddit. On there, people are trying to wrap their heads around the various controversies surrounding District 3 Supervisor Adam Hill.
As someone who documented many of these controversies in my book, I’ve weighed in. Because I’ve been staying at home and not having more opportunities to spend my time elsewhere, I’ve weighed in more frequently. While I’ve had no trouble fielding questions and providing some insights, I’ve garnered a few detractors, most of whom are anonymous trolls itching for a virtual confrontation.
Their beats are typical and predictable. One person attacked me personally, feeling compelled to compare me to Hill while cherry-picking various allegations by CalCoastNews and stating them as fact. But when I linked to comments they made on CalCoastNews’ site about them being a muckracking publication under the same pseudonym, they absurdly accused me of “stalking” them. I figured that was the perfect and natural end to our conversation.
But there was another reddit user who reached out to me privately. At first, they called me a “piece of shit” for “supporting” Hill. Since I had nothing else to do at that moment, I pushed past their invective and had a discussion that proved to be revealing.
I’ve written at length about the misconceptions and false narratives CalCoastNews has made about me personally, but rarely do I have a chance to hear from a CalCoastNews supporter who gives me insight into their thought process and how they digest their “reporting.”
This reddit user, a young Republican, considers Supervisor Hill to be the epitome of big liberal government gone awry. Because of his behavioral issues, his tendency to insult constituents from his County email, and his Jersey-style approach to dealing with “reporters,” this reader was more inclined believe in the various CalCoastNews allegations that they presented. “Because of the way he acts, I’m not surprised he would do those things,” said the user.
And that’s precisely the problem. Hill has garnered a verifiable reputation of being a bully. That’s not in dispute. But CalCoastNews will feed on what we know to be true and supplement it with allegations that either cannot be independently verified or they’re patently untrue. CalCoastNews has been successful in convincing their readers that anyone who disputes their allegations are part of the “deep state” conspiracy to shut down their business — because what kind of person would dare to question anyone who reports on corruption?
The next part of our conversation took a fascinating turn.
“The way you aggressively nipped at [CalCoastNews’] heels is what led me to suspect you were working for Hill,” the user told me. They looked at my Facebook page at the time, read my posts and columns. They considered my aggressive pushback and fact-checking initiative was indicative of a larger plot to silence CalCoastNews. So when Velie called me a “government troll” and insisted to friends, followers and radio listeners that I will paid by Hill to do what I was doing, they believed it. To them, her allegation was believable.
Our local media sources like The Tribune, New Times and KSBY haven’t fact-checked allegations as much as they could have. Speaking to employees at these sources, they believe there is a higher priority to covering the news at it happens than investigating the details. Due to limited staffing, budget cuts and corporate desperation to appease advertisers, they’ve significantly reduced their fact-checking output. So when I came along and became an active fact-checker in 2013 when rarely anyone else was doing that in SLO County, there were growing suspicions among CalCoastNews readers that I did not start independently.
That perception was crafted partly based on my words and actions. The reddit user I spoke to cited the frequency of my posts. Because they wrote about Hill frequently, I frequently looked into their allegations about him. When I explained the frequency of my posts coincided with the frequency of publishing allegations, they told me, “That doesn’t matter. You will still the only person doing that for a while. You weren’t even employed by a major publication.” That’s all true. CalCoastNews recognized these basic facts and expounded on them in exaggerated detail, later conflating my fact-checking to unapologetic defense of Hill’s personal conduct. From there, they tacked on a wave of false allegations to discredit my critique.
I explained to the reddit user that, at the time, I was not equipped to deal with the onslaught of allegations. For one thing, I was a writer working at a magazine with a fraction of the circulation of The Tribune. When CalCoastNews’ Karen Velie made false claims about me on the “Dave Congalton Show,” I didn’t have a large enough of an equivalent platform to respond appropriately. What I ended up doing was paying out-of-pocket for Facebook “sponsored posts,” so that I can potentially tap into Congalton’s audience. And once I captured their attention, I ramped up activity on my page to make it abundantly clear of my positions and the various issues I had with her “reporting.” The problem was I felt I had to be satirical and provocative to get my points across. Ultimately, what ended up happening was CalCoastNews decided to focus on that aspect as opposed to what I was responding to. Sometimes, I was responding in jest to fake Facebook accounts that appeared on my page to make false allegations that later appeared in CalCoastNews articles. In turn, CalCoastNews would publish that satire as statements of fact and deliberately strip my comments out of context.
When Velie called my employer in 2014 and threatened to blackmail her over my “libel,” I felt she crossed the rubicon into criminal behavior. And when I personally heard her screaming, crying and babbling incoherently over the phone — at one point randomly accusing my father of “assaulting” her — I knew I was dealing with a truly disturbed individual. If this person was going to pen over a hundred articles based on a grudge — Hill, her former teacher referred to her as a poor writer in a 2012 New Times interview — she wasn’t going to let me go.
Since my employer refused to report the matter to law enforcement or cooperate in a criminal probe against Velie, I decided to tell my story and make it personal. I made the CalCoastNews reader realize that it wasn’t about Hill. Rather, my decision to be aggressive was based on self-preservation. I believed that if I told my story, documented everything I could and went public, I was protected.
It started as impersonal, but when she made it personal and threatened my family, I made it personal. In doing so, I occasionally lapsed in judgment by acting aggressively and impulsively, relinquishing any modicum of objectivity I had left. Once they officially incorporated me into their conspiracy theory narrative on their website, I resented being haphazardly inserted into their headlines. When I started receiving harassing messages and death threats, my emotional output increased tenfold. The CalCoastNews reader referred to that moment when he started drawing comparisons between Hill and I.
Like the reddit user I spoke to, CalCoastNews readers only saw my prolific responses, but not what or who I was responding to. When I lifted the veil and showed this user written correspondence from Velie and anonymous accounts reiterating her conspiracy theories to anyone she believed was my employer, they were understandably shocked. When I showed them Velie’s restraining order petition against me, which were rife with wildly false allegations — she either couldn’t bother to prove in court or simply made it up — I received the following response: “WTF?”
I don’t believe I changed their mind about their perception of me, but the conversation certainly gave them a more complete picture than they had before.
They pressed me to discuss my personal take of Hill. I assumed he was looking to see me singing his praises, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it.
When you look at his voting record on paper, Hill has consistently voted in alignment with his campaign promises. His positions on issues are generally in the ballpark of what his constituents support. The problem is that his behavior constantly distracted me from focusing on his comments about the issues. Because he garnered controversy so often from his conduct, I felt his behavior contaminated the public conversation to a point that residents were left to support him on party lines alone. Liberals would vote for him on the issues and hope for the best. Conservatives struggled to get a toehold in the public dialogue because of the way Hill treated some of them, including his colleagues. They felt they were left out, so they were willing to vote for anyone else, including a political novice who accused the supervisor of being a sexual predator based on anonymous Cal Poly professor reviews.
But I also take exception to the way criticism of Hill was handled. There’s plenty of reasons to criticize Hill based on the facts we already know. But I drew the line when CalCoastNews took what we knew to be true and embellished. And in their nearly decade-long anti-Hill psychosis, they felt it was fair game to target people they believed were joined at the hip with Hill: private citizens, relatives, his wife, his step-children, voters who dared to express support for Hill on Facebook; anyone who gave a “thumbs up” like on any of my posts. They couldn’t simply publish the facts. They had to cast a wide net and smear anyone they believed were part of a larger conspiracy to “destroy” them. They would dog-whistle to their readers that targeting anyone they believe are associated with Hill deserve retaliation and harassment.
I wanted to emphasize to this reader that there are people who are not in lockstep with Hill and they don’t support CalCoastNews. By opposing CalCoastNews, that’s not an implied endorsement of Hill or “corruption.” And CalCoastNews has engaged in conduct that warrants the same level of scrutiny from law enforcement as the FBI’s investigation into Hill.
Not sure if I succeeded in making those points, but at least the conversation has started.
Aaron Ochs is the author of “Defamers: How Fake News Terrorized a Community & Those Who Dared to Fight It,” a nonfiction uncovering the defamatory, deceptive and criminal practices of online tabloid CalCoastNews. Click here to subscribe to his Patreon, check out exclusive news features and more.