The day this news site’s world stood still
January 21, 2009
By THE EDITORS
On a warm afternoon last August, this news site nearly died. It is only because of a considerable confluence of coincidental events, and perhaps some kind of divine intervention, that we are here today to report the events that almost assigned us to history.
UncoveredSLO.com, this site’s predecessor, was just six months old, but already our reporting was irritating some of the county’s most sacred cows. Our work was exposing for the first time the interlaced and problematic relationships between money lenders, developers, and others who then enjoyed favorable reputations, and who were operating without scrutiny. We were hearing threats from bankers. We were receiving vitriolic and anonymous e-mails and postings on the site. And we were getting menacing missives from lawyers. In a word, UncoveredSLO was then, as now, controversial.
Then came the late Friday phone call from Utah-based Heritage Web Solutions, at that time UncoveredSLO’s Web provider. They were just letting us know that they had received a complaint about a reader’s blog comment, and so, as of an hour earlier, UncoveredSLO.com no longer existed. We had been purged from the Web. No further explanation would be forthcoming.
That was a stunning and disturbing announcement. But here’s the coincidence: We were right in the middle of changing our brand to CalCoastNews.com, and shifting to a new Web provider to better accommodate our growing site. We thus avoided extinction, like a lucky sleepwalker in traffic, by a matter of hours.
But who had done this? Why? And… if this kind of easy assassination is the future of online journalism, isn’t this emerging technology-aided craft doomed to whimsical destruction?
With the help of San Luis Obispo attorney Michael R. Pick of James McKiernan Lawyers, we were able to learn that Heritage Web Solutions had received a letter from B. Alan Bergfeld, representing Point Center Financial Inc. (PCF), in Aliso Viejo. Bergfeld contended that a reader’s comment on hard-money lending practices “contains defamatory remarks made against PCF, which are untrue and with no factual basis whatsoever. Those comments appear at URL http:/www.uncoveredslo.com/id=103&showEntry=1.”
After threatening liability, Bergfeld demanded that Heritage Web Solutions immediately remove the “offensive” post. Heritage Web Solution’s response was to surreptitiously torpedo UncoveredSLO.com.
That wasn’t his intention in contacting Heritage Web Solutions, Bergfeld said this week.
“I’m sorry about that,” he said. “But discussions don’t seem to go very far when we try to contact people for a retraction. We contacted them [Heritage Web Solutions] only to remove the post, not to take any other action. I can’t help what they do. But I am sorry about what they did.”
(In many ways, Bergfeld’s argument about retractions holds water. Old, long-settled legal issues face brand new interpretation in an Internet world that didn’t exist a short time ago. However, current court precedent holds that comments posted by readers on a Web site are the responsibility of the posting parties, not the Web site owners.)
Mentioned prominently in the reader comment which generated PCF’s interest is the name Ronald W. Hertel, owner of the development company RW Hertel and Sons. Bergfeld said Hertel “is a borrower of ours. Or was….”
Bergfeld also said he was motivated to contact UncoveredSLO’s Web provider not by Hertel, but by “corporate concern,” adding, “I personally have not spoken to Mr. Hertel in ages.” Bergfeld said his company “regularly does Web searches for postings we find to be inaccurate or offensive. Then we write one of these letters.”
The blindsiding cancellation came at a time when UncoveredSLO was reporting vigorously on a flock of local golden geese – including Estate Financial and Hurst hard money lenders, banks like Heritage Oaks, and Atascadero’s erstwhile “man of the year,” developer and borrower extraordinaire Kelly Gearhart. Bank officials were trying their best to intimidate us with ominous e-mails. Gearhart went on Dave Congalton’s Home Town Radio talk show to denounce our reporting as “lies” and “completely false.” His lawyer fired off back-to-back promises of pending litigation.
All the while, the local daily was spinning good news fairy tales about the county’s ever-worsening fiscal picture and regularly trying, without success, to discredit our reporting.
Heritage Web Solutions Legal Administrator Ryan Nelson said of his company’s cancellation of UncoveredSLO: “It’s a decision usually made by upper management. It depends on the liability posed to our company. If we think something violates our terms of service, then we are within our contractual right to terminate the relationship. We may take down a site at any time without notice.”
So that’s what Heritage Web Solutions did. And it happened right at a time when the minimal expenses of simply funding and establishing a new site was well out of reach for us. (Still might be.) But Fate intervened, as we already were settled on our new site.
For those who wish that we had been exterminated, too bad. Our new site’s contract helps protect us from capricious dispatch. And we know that our best defense is the truth.
Our most vociferous opponents during this financial freefall are either now in jail; under the microscope of state, federal, and local investigation; or simply reduced to sniping comment on this site under pseudonyms.
Meanwhile, our work as CalCoastNews continues.