“An item of interest,” Cal Coast News Senior Correspondent Dan Blackburn wrote to Razor Online on February 2.
Mr. Blackburn provided a link to the News Frontier Database, which is maintained by the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), which is affiliated with Columbia University School of Journalism. In CJR’s database, Cal Coast News (CCN) was added as an online news site. A profile was included for the site, which was penned by Chasen Marshall of the CJR. Shortly after the email by Mr. Blackburn was dispatched to me, Cal Coast News published an article claiming that they were “featured” in the database.
The timing could not have been better for CCN. On January 26, CCN broke the news about sexual harassment accusations made against Paso Robles’ first female police chief, Lisa Solomon. Titled “Police chief accused of sexually assaulting her officers,” the article showcased accusations of “sexual misconduct, illegal management practices and retaliation” allegedly made by officers and police department personnel. The accusations made by officers and personnel were inflammatory, and presented without a shred of journalistic skepticism, like a case file from an overzealous prosecutor. The only element missing was the written presumption of guilt. The accusations were damning, and were ultimately covered by KSBY news. The news spread like wildfire, and it eventually caught the ire of Tribune columnist Bob Cuddy.
“Can we slow down just a bit and look at this rationally? Can we eye the accusations skeptically, as professional news people do, and with judiciousness, as grown-ups do?” asked Cuddy in his February 5 column, “Trashing of Paso chief shows bad journalism.”
Mr. Cuddy took aim at CCN, renaming them “Swamp Gas.” Mr. Cuddy diagnosed CCN as “a putrescent online swamp swarming with wannabe journalists.” Mr. Cuddy huffed about The Tribune and how they adhere to higher standards of journalism. Armed with a thesaurus, a rhyming dictionary and a pretentious tongue, Mr. Cuddy took one more swipe at CCN, calling them a “malodorous quagmire of a fetid swamp.”
As with some of his other columns, Mr. Cuddy had his usual internal struggle with himself: he started with eloquent critique loosely based on his moral compass, but then comes the struggle. Mr. Cuddy is simply unable to resist the temptation to swing wildly, and he hopes he occasionally strikes his target, collateral damage be damned. It was clear he was eagerly waiting for the CCN torches and pitchforks to come.
And so they did — they being the so-called “hyperventiliating mob” of “swamp marionettes.”
Hundreds of comments were posted under the article on the Tribune website within a matter of hours. Many of the comments came from people defending and promoting CCN. Critics assailed Mr. Cuddy for penning a petty, mean-spirited column that attempted to undermine CCN’s journalistic integrity and the accusations made by Mrs. Solomon’s personnel. Some accused Mr. Cuddy of defending Mrs. Solomon — which he didn’t, except only to provide her background and some context — and being part of a massive conspiracy to cover up the “scandal.” Some even said that Mr. Cuddy was envious of CCN’s success. Others accused him of being a “coward” among other things. The few who supported Mr. Cuddy were viciously scolded. Back and forth, for days.
In this digital battle between Mr. Cuddy and his critics, Mr. Cuddy won. Despite the notoriously venomous columnist penning a tonally inappropriate column, Mr. Cuddy’s angry critics defended their favorite investigative news source with the same manic tenacity that he accused CCN readers and writers of having. And vice versa.
CCN writers went on the radio to defend their work and criticize Mr. Cuddy’s column. On February 6, 1340 KYNS’ Bill Benica sat down with CCN’s Karen Velie to discuss Mr. Cuddy’s column and recent developments surrounding the Paso Robles police department controversy. Before discussing the January 27, 2011 internal memo from Mrs. Solomon that unveiled plans to reduce police protection, Ms. Velie defended her article. She repeatedly boasted about how many sources she spoke to and how extensive her investigative outreach was. Ms. Velie mentioned that Mrs. Solomon did not respond to the allegations before press time, but insisted that CCN rarely made any corrections or retractions.
That is true, but people did reach out to CCN for corrections in similar articles with corrections that weren’t made. Last year, Cal Coast News published the article, ”Sex and the Los Osos Sewer,” which Razor Online also analyzed. Based heavily on statements from the ex-spouse of former Los Osos Community Services Director Maria Kelly, the article stated that Mrs. Kelly was accused of having a conflict of interest with current SLO County Public Works Director Paavo Ogren. At the time, the two were dating, but “sex” made the headline because that’s what sold the story. Sound familiar?
The article mentioned that Mrs. Kelly was living in San Luis Obispo, and moved in with Mr. Ogren — and theoretically, that invalidated her tenure as board director. Mrs. Kelly, who has been vocal in defending her positions and countering assertions about her personal life, went on to Calhoun’s Cannon blog to challenge the article.
“I was never requested to comment by Velie. No emails, no phone call. Nothing. I know she had my email as a ‘concerned’ LO resident felt the need to contact her and push for an article. Her article has inadequacies and since she was looking for a sensationalized story based on personal challenges there wouldn’t have been a response from me anyway,” wrote Mrs. Kelly on June 18, a day after the article was published.
Mrs. Velie appeared and countered the claim that Mrs. Kelly received no calls or emails. She went on to interrogate Mrs. Kelly, on the blog, and ask her why she pulled her children out of Los Osos schools and moved them to San Luis Obispo.
“You are full of crap,” Mrs. Kelly shot back. “My children have been in SLO schools since we moved down from Paso [Robles] in 2005 because they were in the duel immersion program.” This contradicted a statement in the article, which stated that in 2010, Mrs. Kelly transferred her children from Los Osos to San Luis Obispo schools. The article statement was not corrected.
“Instead of trying to put up a smokescreen that you where not called, stick to the issue,” Mrs. Velie snapped before asking Mrs. Kelly a series of questions that pertained to the article — questions that should have been asked before the article was published. And not asked on a blog.
Mrs. Kelly had denied the accusations, and the article was not updated by CCN to reflect the information provided by Mrs. Kelly on Calhoun’s Cannon.
Instead, Mrs. Velie issued a follow-up to the article on July 11, which dug deeper into the accusations made by Mrs. Kelly’s ex-spouse. The newer article focused on Mrs. Kelly’s alleged drug use, and implicated both Mrs. Kelly and Mr. Ogren’s children of doing drugs. In that article, there was no mention that Mrs. Kelly was contacted to address the accusations levied against her. Despite the copious amounts of scandalous accusations made, County Administrator Jim Grant dismissed the conflict of interest charge. CCN reported the dismissal of the charges, but did not mention that the Los Osos Community Services District opted out of investigating Mrs. Kelly — and the accusations against Kelly were never mentioned again. Nor were the drug accusations made against Ogren and his children.
Similar to the article about the Paso Robles police department, the prevalence of the accusations and the absence of a response from the accused Mrs. Kelly cemented the presumption of guilt for readers.
At some point between the time of the “sex scandal” in Los Osos to the “sex scandal” in Paso Robles, CCN figured out that sex sells. Ms. Velie has been exploring a revenue model for CCN that involves selling their news to radio stations, and CCN determined that sex was the true moneymaker. CCN didn’t figure that out earlier, when, in May 2009, they broke the sexual harassment scandal between former County Administrator David Edge and former Assistant County Administrator Gail Wilcox. It was a given that readers were interested in corruption involving public and government officials, but that wasn’t enough for CCN. Something was missing.
With an arsenal of unverified salacious rumors, they sharpened their words to invoke more outrage. They rode the outrage straight to the airwaves, to anyone who would give them time to beat their anti-corruption war drum. The issues rested entirely on the spectacle. Profiling the likes of troubled developer Kelly Gearhart and exposing the illegal activities of Hurst Financial — all meticulously written, detailed stories — was not enough to generate revenue. For years, CCN was the eccentric underdog of the investigative journalism community. But they ultimately surrendered themselves to shock value, which — to them — appeared to be the only way to get attention from mainstream audiences.
Razor Online is an analytical blog, not a news site. We do not operate on a day-to-day news cycle. We are not competing with CCN, but I’ve made it increasingly clear that CCN no longer observes the high standards of investigative journalism — standards set by sites like the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) and the Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE) organization. There is no question that uncovering the truth is laudable for a news source. However, to write with frenzied sensationalism, repeatedly proclaim their self-righteousness as “messengers” and brag about their achievements belies the standards they claim to uniquely uphold.
As a result, they do their readers a disservice. CCN’s readers have changed from concerned citizens to conspiracy chasers looking for the next big thrill. This shouldn’t happen, and that’s why I take exception to the way CCN presents and delivers their version of the news.
If they continue to feed into reader hysteria for hoped-for profit, informed citizens of the Central Coast will be living in a distorted reality, not knowing the difference between fact and fiction. In order to uncover corruption and fight against it, one must know the facts and stand by them with absolute objective certainty. It’s possible that CCN can improve, but only if they start asking themselves the questions they ask of their targets but not of themselves — and allow readers to determine the answers.
– Aaron Ochs