How Fake News Should Inspire Media Accountability

If you live in San Luis Obispo County and consider yourself an active news reader, chances are you’ve heard about the controversial online tabloid, CalCoastNews, and its penchant for churning out InfoWars-style “reporting.” If you’re interested in learning more about them, their “reporters,” methods and activities, check out my book.

CalCoastNews is a great reason why our local media should hold other media outlets accountable. We see that accountability on the national level. Why not here?

Brian Stelter is CNN’s chief media correspondent and host of CNN’s Reliable Sources. Stelter’s job is to assess and discuss the national media landscape, review the anatomy of popular and trending news, and give viewers an inside look into the news-reporting process. He’s also the same age as me, so I can appreciate the fact he demonstrates a comprehensive mastery of the subject matter early in his hopefully long and fulfilling journalism career.

Recently, Stelter had a segment covering a failed right-wing smear campaign against South Bend, Indiana mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. The smear campaign, which was first uncovered by The Daily Beast, involved two right-wing operatives soliciting men to falsely accuse Buttigieg of sexually assaulting them. These operatives allegedly created a fake Twitter account impersonating one of Buttigieg’s so-called “victims” and published a blog post on detailing the accusation. The post reached more than 12,000 Facebook impressions. Some websites ran these allegations without checking the facts. The segment credited Buttigieg’s fast response for defusing the smear campaign’s momentum.

The also segment featured a rather timeless quote from CNN political commentator Alice Stewart who said, “In this day in age of social media […] a lie can get all the way around the world before the truth puts its pants on.”

A discussion ensued after the segment aired, which touched on the mainstream media’s skepticism over the story. But there’s a noted difference between showing skepticism — and reporting on why there’s good reason to be skeptical — and being non-responsive about the scandal’s false nature. Stelter and Reliable Sources were one of the only news broadcasts to report on the failed scandal and how it materialized.

In SLO County, we rarely see media holding other media accountable this way. None of the reporters or staff at news organizations like SLO Tribune, New Times or KSBY-TV have been willing to go on the record to explain their hesitation to address “reporting” from websites like CalCoastNews. It’s true they’ll occasionally touch on their controversial, often-unsubstantiated allegations, but usually it’s in a dismissive or mocking context. But sometimes, there are stories and allegations that deserve more than an anonymous quip.

Here’s a good example.

In 2016, SLO County Supervisor Adam Hill announced his bid for re-election. This triggered a reporting frenzy by CalCoastNews, a self-proclaimed “news agency” co-founded by Karen Velie. Velie has long alleged that Hill, who was often critical of the website’s reporting on him, was part of an elaborate conspiracy to “cripple” and shut down her website. From 2012 through 2016, CalCoastNews published over a hundred articles about the supervisor. Velie once alleged, without evidence, that Hill was moonlighting as a business partner with a young developer with a history of domestic violence. Velie had also alleged Hill’s then-partner Dee Torres abused the homeless and stole gift cards from a homeless shelter she helped oversee. The controversial, self-styled “reporter” also alleged her 2013 drunk driving arrest, subsequent troubles with the County Dept. of Social Services and a 2017 defamation lawsuit she ultimately lost were personally orchestrated by Hill.

The voluminous allegations from CalCoastNews and Velie did not pan out.

Yet these unfounded and demonstrably false allegations resurfaced in an anonymous Facebook campaign called “Fire Adam Hill” in late 2015. Using anonymous troll accounts, “Fire Adam Hill” took advantage of Facebook’s lax advertising policies to anonymously promote CalCoastNews and their allegations for several months without filing for political committee status with the California Fair Political Practices Commission. And because I was heavily critical of CalCoastNews and this organization at the time, I was attacked. Even my family and friends were caught in their cross-hairs, having “dead or alive” wanted posters made with their faces on them. This anonymous group also targeted Hill’s family, friends and practically anyone who dared to support the supervisor on social media.

This was unprecedented harassment. One would be hard-pressed to find this type of political campaigning in any town or city in this county. But then we later learned about the Russian government using similar tactics to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. These efforts were extensively chronicled in the redacted version of the Mueller report.

At the time, “Fire Adam Hill” relied heavily on propaganda from self-proclaimed “activist” Kevin P. Rice, who occasionally and publicly advised the anonymous organizers. In mailers sent to Hill’s constituency, Rice deceptively advertised Hill’s appearance at a supervisorial debate he personally organized. He failed to disclose his previous campaigns against the supervisor and failed to disclose Hill declining to attend. “Fire Adam Hill” would help perpetuate the myth Rice concocted that Hill failed to show at the debate at the last minute, presumably because he was too scared to debate two of his political opponents — both of whom Rice previously and publicly supported. Rice would later solicit one of Hill’s critics and one of his opponents to participate in robocalls, making allegations that both participants refused to corroborate with any news media that wasn’t CalCoastNews.

Rice’s actions mirror those of far-right conspiracy theorist Jacob Wohl, one of the individuals involved in the smear campaign against 2020 presidential candidate Buttigieg. On Tuesday, we also learned Wohl and his associate Jack Burkman tried staging a fake protest against themselves. These repeated acts of deception are matters of public interest that the national media is following. But when similar deceptive tactics are deployed in SLO County to influence public opinion and local elections, the media is largely silent.

How could something like this happen in our country let alone our community?

The Tribune did report on “Fire Adam Hill” and Rice’s robocalls but they offered no editorial insight into this phenomenon, which was locally and historically unprecedented. New Times occasionally takes aim at “political troll” Rice in their anonymous op-ed “Shredder” column, but rarely goes beyond mockery.

This year, Rice boasted in social media comments and on CalCoastNews that he had “inside knowledge” of pay-to-play corruption allegations made by friend Debbie Peterson, who suddenly resigned from the Grover Beach City Council over them. Peterson implicated members of the City Council as being involved in corruption related to the local marijuana industry. Legal counsel for the city David P. Hale said Peterson did not present the allegations to him prior to resigning. Grover Beach Police Dept. has no report on file from Peterson.

Curiously, Peterson was also involved in a 2016 robocall paid for by Rice in which she claimed Supervisor Hill “locked me in county hall on a public holiday when no one else was in the building and told me he had a permit to carry a concealed gun.” Tribune and New Times were unable to corroborate Peterson’s account. Peterson later admitted on a local radio show that she made the allegation in order for voters to elect Hill’s opponent, Dan Carpenter, whose campaign personally coordinated with “Fire Adam Hill.”

Despite the craziness, Hill won his re-election in 2016. Since he’s announced he would be running again in 2020, CalCoastNews and the same anonymous trolls linked to them have signaled their intentions to recycle the same conspiracy theories about Hill that dominated social media four years earlier. CalCoastNews previously laid the groundwork for smear campaigns based on anonymous troll allegations their co-publisher has verbally made.

The mainstream media has a responsibility to check the facts, review their findings and state conclusions. Now that we’re aware of attacks on our democracy in the national-political landscape, the media should be more vigilant in holding other media accountable when similarly deceptive tactics are deployed locally. This is not the time to lay back.

I’m clearly passionate about this issue. Because I was one of the only people holding CalCoastNews accountable and on a regular basis, I had a much larger target on my back. Of course, that’s part of the journalism business in any market. You report and opine knowing the risk of being scrutinized, sometimes being harassed and threatened as a result. That constantly happens, sure, but doesn’t mean it should.

Harassment largely occurs when fewer people are reporting on the subject. The fewer people there are to provide checks and balances on questionable media sources, the easier it is for free press to be attacked.

The most effective way to protect and preserve our free press is to question the validity of those claiming they are the free press. The most effective way to hold other media accountable is to have a synergized free press that quickly and diligently assesses questionable claims and sources. Right now, I argue the local media isn’t doing that. By continuing to turn the other cheek, sensationalism will rise, the importance of fact-finding will erode and the news media will lose legitimacy in the eyes of an increasingly curious public.

Marketing entrepreneur and columnist from Morro Bay, California.

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