I wrote Defamers: How Fake News Terrorized a Community & Those Who Dared to Fight It with the expectation that CalCoastNews was an anomaly we could eventually move past from. But I wouldn’t have imagined, in my wildest dreams, that I would be eulogizing someone who was a target of their harassment for almost a decade more than a year after publishing my book.
There’s a lot I don’t know about the circumstances surrounding former SLO County Supervisor Adam Hill’s death. It would be a disservice to him and his loved ones to speculate. I am familiar with the FBI investigating him and the recent workplace misconduct complaint filed against him. Whether or not these factors played a role in his death, I don’t know.
What I do know is the extent of how his death was spun in ways that were demonstrably tasteless. CalCoastNews initially reported Hill’s death as a suspected suicide by gunshot wound, a false claim they walked back with a half-hearted “clarification.” If you get your facts wrong, it’s not a clarification.
They followed up their false claim by publishing a photo that showed Hill’s body being taken out of the home by the coroner in an op-ed discussing a legal theory for filling the supervisor’s now-vacant seat. The photo, which was published without source attribution, was taken by CalCoastNews contributor Kevin P. Rice, according to witnesses. Rice had posted a similar photo on his Facebook profile, calling him an “abusive manipulating bully, liar, and bribe taker.” He added to his litany of names to describe Hill, “The short yellow body bag fits.” The publishing of these photos drew sharp criticism from residents and readers who were vocal in opposition to his politics and conduct. The website has refused to take the photo down.
Rice has a long and storied history of making false claims about Hill and stalking the supervisor on several occasions, whether it’s trespassing on his home to hand-deliver legal threats (Rice is not a registered or bonded process server with the county) or following the supervisor throughout town. Last year, Rice was the mastermind behind a controversial robocall that claimed “the Daughters of the Hero’s Cross KKK” endorsed Hill’s re-election while making homophobic comments about his opponent Stacy Korsgaden. And the call was made around the time Korsgaden distributed political mailers, accusing the supervisor of being a sexual predator based on anonymous comments on a site that published anonymous reviews of Cal Poly instructors.
Then it was revealed on August 13 that Hill was the recipient of a workplace misconduct complaint. When news outlets didn’t disclose the name of the complainant or the nature of the complaint, CalCoastNews reportedly revealed that information. They claimed Hill had a sexual relationship with his administrative assistant, according to unnamed “multiple sources.” They went onto claim, without citing any source, that Hill and the administrative assistant drove in the same car; that Hill would stay overnight at her house according to an unnamed neighbor. Sounds an awful lot like stalking and hiding behind unnamed, potentially imaginary “sources” to justify it.
They also claimed a previous administrative assistant complained about Hill harassing them, though the County said there was no other complaint against the former supervisor.
CalCoastNews also claimed Hill did not respond to questions about his alleged relationship with the complainant, but failed to disclose to readers their co-founder Karen Velie was actively appealing her lawsuit against him and the county. That’s a conflict of interest. Velie unsuccessfully sued Hill and the county in Superior and federal court, claiming Hill deprived her of her First Amendment rights by denying her equal access to information and retaliating against her for her reporting. Full disclosure: Velie named me in her lawsuits, falsely accusing me of being Hill’s “business associate.”
And according to county officials, it’s against protocol for county officials to speak with litigants in an active legal proceeding.
How much can one person take?
The free press has a tremendous amount of latitude with broad free speech protections, but what happens when a supposed news outlet and individuals engages in personal harassment?
It’s clear the recipient of all this was a public official who suffered from lifelong depression and sought treatment for it. It’s also clear that this person also generated controversy for their words and actions throughout their tenure as county supervisor. But when you look at the totality of what Hill had to deal with for months and years on end, you have to — at the very least — wonder why this kind of conduct remains unchecked by media sources that adhere to higher journalism standards.
Given recent circumstances, it’s not unreasonable to wonder whether or not this kind of harassment played a factor in Hill’s suspected suicide.
That’s not to say Hill is somehow exempt from criticism or deserves a free pass postmortem. He was involved in a number of newsworthy public controversies that naturally invoked a public debate. But I’m talking about how the story about him was artificially extended beyond the realm of verifiable fact and into these QAnon-like conspiracy theories that served as a basis for him to be personally harassed under the faulty guise of “reporting.” That, in itself, is newsworthy.
But the media has been silent on the extensive harassment campaign against Hill. Shameful. For instance, New Times will feature a cover story about Hill’s “good fight,” but didn’t bother to write a single word about the bad people he’s fought against. And Tribune published a story offering tweet-length sympathies from colleagues, but wrote nothing about the harassment. Publishing half a story does a disservice to the whole truth.