On Thursday, a San Luis Obispo County Superior Court jury found two writers from CalCoastNews guilty of defaming a Central Coast hazardous waste contractor in a 2012 article published on the site.
Karen Velie and Daniel Blackburn, the current and former co-owners of CalCoastNews were ordered to pay $1.1 million in damages. The article claimed that Charles Tenborg, the former president of Eco Solutions, was illegally transporting hazardous waste, among other activities. Chris McGuinness is a reporter for The New Times and has been covering the trial. KCBX's Bree Zender spoke with him on Thursday.
ZENDER: Can you tell me about this article that is the subject of this lawsuit?
MCGUINNESS: The article was published in 2012 and it accused Mr. Tenborg and his waste transportation company, Eco Solutions, with a number of different things... That he had been hauling hazardous waste illegally. That he had received an illegal no-bid contract with the Integrated Waste Management Authority and that he had been fired from a previous job with the county in the mid 90s. Also that he was encouraging clients or municipalities to break state law. After the article was published, Mr. Tenborg and another gentleman who is mentioned in the article sent a letter requesting that CalCoastNews take the article down because some of the statements in it were false. CalCoastNews did not do that. The article remained up even after the lawsuit was filed and through the trial five years later. It looks like the lawsuit was filed in 2013.
ZENDER: What were the reactions from both parties once the verdict was released?
MCGUINNESS: Well Mr. Tenborg was visibly emotional when I spoke with him after the verdict was read. He sees this as a vindication of both himself and his business. He testified at the trial that it took him about 15 years to build up this business. And that after the article ran, he was obviously very concerned about the damage it might do to his reputation. He talked a little bit about having to tell his teenage son at the time about these allegations in the article. He also brought up that at the time he was dating and believes that some of the people he dated probably looked him up online. Five years later, as the case was going on, if you Googled Mr. Tenborg's name--and his lawyers introduced this to evidence--that one of the top [results] that came up under his name was this story. And after being up all these years is he definitely feels that you know he was he was vindicated in court. I did talk really quickly was one of the CalCoastNews lawyers. They didn't say a whole lot. They just said that they were disappointed with the verdict. And I asked him about the appeal and they kind of said that was something they were considering.
ZENDER: So you and I are both journalists. This is pretty big story for journalism on the Central Coast. What do you think this says about the state of journalism on the Central Coast?
MCGUINNESS: It shows that even in the age of the Internet, where once a story goes up it can stay on there forever. It really shows that as journalists, we still need to essentially make sure that we're taking the due diligence in what we write, what we print and really thinking through how we go about publishing our stories. And I think that's especially true now in a climate where a lot of people are really questioning some of the stories they're reading. Questioning the things that they're taking in. And there's a lot of scrutiny on the media for the way it reports things what it reports and how truthful that reporting is.