When San Luis Obispo started seeing an increase in protests following the death of George Floyd in May, readers asked me questions about one of CalCoastNews’ reporters Josh Friedman. People asked me because he’s appeared at several local protests, recording video and live streams on YouTube.
Recently, Friedman made headlines on his website when they said he was “battered” by supporters of 20-year-old Black protest organizer Tianna Arata. Despite CalCoastNews claiming he was a victim of battery, Friedman did not file a police report. In fact, after Friedman was called out by Arata supporter Cavin Stokes for his “fake news” and got into a heated physical altercation with protesters, Friedman stayed for more than two hours.
Three protesters attending the event recalled to me that Friedman charged into their huddle, reportedly pressing his phone against their faces.
According to his biography on the website MuckRack.com, Friedman describes himself as a “globetrotting journalist” who covers geopolitics and news in San Luis Obispo County. Friedman writes that he learned investigative reporting as an intern under the tutelage of CalCoastNews co-founder Karen Velie. He moved to Sofia, Bulgaria in 2014 to cover news in “several dozen countries,” with a focus on the Balkans and Eastern Europe. He eventually returned to the Central Coast to continue reporting for CalCoastNews.
In 2012, Friedman launched the website FreeSLO.com, which was a libertarian blog that he ran with editor and Atascadero resident Gary Kirkland and someone identifying themselves as “Kim M.”
FreeSLO.com touted a number of conspiracy theories. For instance, Friedman promoted a conspiracy theory peddled by far right-wing groups like the John Birch Society that alleges the United Nations is involved in a scheme with elected officials to impose worldwide dictatorship (“Agenda 21”). CalCoastNews would later publish a number of articles and op-eds alleging that local officials in SLO County were involved in that conspiracy.
One of the more well-known peddlers of the Agenda 21 conspiracy theory is G. Edward Griffin, a conspiracy theorist author and member of the John Birch Society. On FreeSLO.com, Friedman indicated that he idolized Griffin and supported in his beliefs. In December 2012, Griffin made an appearance at a North County Tea Party meeting in Paso Robles and Friedman recorded remarks made by Griffin.
Griffin’s activity was, at one point in time, monitored by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that tracks hate groups throughout the United States. In 2009, Griffin helped organize a gathering known as “Jekyll Island,” featuring a wide variety of “radical tax protesters, militiamen, nativist extremists, anti-Obama ‘birthers,’ hard-line libertarians, conspiracy-minded individuals with theories about secret government concentration camps, even a raging anti-Semite named Edgar Steele.”
Griffin founded Freedom Force International, an organization he claims “promotes freedom of choice,” but human rights proponents claim the organization’s events are alt-right recruitment attempts. The organization brings together an assortment of conspiracy theories like the anti-vaccination movement, cover-up of “natural” cancer cures, and the 9/11 truther movement (a controlled explosion). While organizers have denied pandering to the alt-right, literally everything they’ve peddled have laid the foundation for far-right conspiracy theory movements like QAnon.
In Dec. 2015, Freedom Force International held a local convention in Paso Robles called “The Second Congress” that included a surprising amount of locally recognized guest speakers. Randall Jordan, who is now chair of the SLO County Republican Party, was one of the speakers. District 5 Supervisor Debbie Arnold also spoke at the event. And Daniel Blackburn, co-founder of CalCoastNews and Friedman’s superior, also spoke.
On FreeSLO, Friedman also linked to and shared articles from Oath Keepers, an anti-government far-right organization known for its association with white supremacist posse comitatus movement. Southern Poverty Law Center, who is also monitoring that group’s activities, described Oath Keepers as an organization “based on a set of baseless conspiracy theories about the federal government working to destroy the liberties of Americans.”
Friedman didn’t just share conspiracy theories on his website. He occasionally made public comment at government meetings, mostly notably SLO County Board of Supervisors, about the United Nations attempting to usurp private property rights and civil liberties from county residents. And under the occupational pretense of “reporter,” Friedman confronted then-Congresswoman Lois Capps and tried preventing her from walking when she didn’t answer his questions. According to Capps’ former aides, the congresswoman was concerned for her safety due to Friedman’s behavior during and after his exchange with her.
In 2012, Friedman appeared at Earth Day Festival, an event in San Luis Obispo, as a FreeSLO reporter covering the event. But his coverage was actually a contest submission to become a reporter for InfoWars. He provided coverage based on the narrative that events like the Earth Day Festival and guests like local “environmental rap superhero” Mr. Eco were part of an “eco-fascist” plot to force residents into environmental compliance.
For a while, Friedman spent time in Europe to cover the migrant crisis overseas and a myriad of issues throughout Europe. His coverage was based largely on heritage preservation and finding opportunities to chastise migrants attempting to leave these war-torn countries to primarily white European nations.
Friedman returned stateside this year, but due to the pandemic, his flights to return overseas were canceled. He shifted his priorities to covering local and national news with a strong emphasis on protests following the death of George Floyd. And last year, Friedman joined a far-right conspiracy theorist organization called We Are Change and started a chapter in San Luis Obispo.
Since I wrote Defamers, Friedman has uploaded several live streams, videos, and participated in a number of interviews. I watched many of them over the course of four months. I came across a common theme in his content, which is self-victimization.
Friedman has developed his own confrontational style of “reporting” and immersing himself in potentially explosive scenes unfolding before him. Instead of taking a step back to record protests and looting from a safe distance, Friedman will charge in. His actions would provoke strong, visceral reactions from people in the form of threats, harassment and occasionally assault, which he was able to capture on camera. I’m not saying or implying in any way that he was somewhat deserving of that sort of treatment, in most cases, Friedman clearly brought a lot of that criminal conduct onto himself in ways that most professional on-scene reporters wouldn’t do. Friedman would then portray the protests as “violent mobs” partly because of his personal experiences with confronting protesters.
Friedman has developed a following on YouTube with supporters claiming he’s unbiased and performing a valuable service as a journalist covering protests — as in the protests that descended into violence and chaos. But the reality is: Friedman’s rabid embrace of far-right conspiracy theories and extremism don’t make his self-proclaimed “reporter” status all that believable. He’s more of a provocative, race-baiting spectator than an actual reporter. He reports on issues with a personal and political narrative in mind and generates selective content to make that narrative appear believable.
When it comes to journalism, he can’t serve two masters. He can’t call himself an objective reporter and embrace far-right conspiracy theories. But because he can’t help himself but cater to conspiracies that he never bothers to verify, Friedman is not a reporter.
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.