Will Salena Zito’s Editors And Outlets Take Ownership Of Her Work?
A day after speaking with Contemptor about allegations raised by a number of Twitter users — both anonymous and verified — that she had mischaracterized Republicans as Democrats in her recent book and possibly fabricated quotes in her articles, New York Post columnist and Washington Examiner reporter Salena Zito took to Twitter to publicly defend herself and her reporting.
The lengthy Twitter thread, which you can read in full here, seemed extremely familiar to this author as much of it was taken verbatim from an email response Zito sent to us on Monday afternoon. Much like the 1400-plus word email, which was curiously sent just minutes after a nearly 15-minute phone call with Contemptor during which she claimed occurred while driving and less than an hour after Contemptor first reached out to her, Zito spent most of her effort pushing back against accusations that she failed to disclose in The Great Revolt that a number of swing/Dem voters were in fact elected GOP officials and longtime Republicans. (It would also appear that Zito sent the exact same email to HuffPost’s Ashley Feinberg, complete with passages in red text suggesting a copy-and-paste job.)
As we detailed in our interview with Zito, the Pennsylvania-based reporter tweeted out explanations for most of the examples laid out by a pseudonymous account that had been created just a few days ago specifically to highlight criticisms of her reporting. As these arguments largely match up with what she had sent us on Monday, we won’t rehash them here. Also, Feinberg’s recently-published deep-dive — with maybe the greatest headline ever — does a phenomenal job of taking on Zito’s defense of her book. (Seriously, read it. Now.)
Some of what she sent out on Twitter and told us via phone and email, however, actually raises more questions.
One thing that stood out in her Twitter thread was her declaration that every “profiled person in the book was audio-taped and videotaped & their interviews transcribed.” This seems to be a blatant attempt to conflate two separate issues — the perceived lack of disclosure in her book and the belief that some of her articles’ quotes are fabricated.
The mischaracterization of elected Republican officials in her book, whether one thinks the accusation is fair or not, has nothing to do with the accuracy of her interviews with those subjects. And that allegation has not been lobbed at her when it comes to the book. This would seem to be, for all intents and purposes, a clear deflection tactic being deployed.
Meanwhile, when it came to the accusations of fabricated quotes, Zito didn’t dig deep into that issue in her Twitter thread or email to Contemptor. In one tweet, she noted that there “are a handful of times I do not use people’s names in a story; they don’t want their lives or businesses destroyed by anonymous trolls as this cyber bully has tried to do to me.” She also ended her thread with the following statement:
“I tape my interviews. I travel the country. I do my job thoroughly and diligently and that’s why my work is widely read and respected – and no professional Twitter troll will dissuade me or my employers from giving voice to the Americans who too often are ignored.”
In her email to Contemptor on Monday, she slightly amended previous claims that she records all of her interviews, instead stating that it is now most interviews.
“I am a journalist who keeps tabs on every place I visited in 2016 (and before, and after) and audio record most of my interviews, I keep a count on everything I do,” she wrote. “The anonymous Twitter account’s notion that half of 4,913 people interviewed are elected Republicans is once again a bloated lie.”
During our phone call, she indicated that she usually audio or video records her interviews while stating that she has them all transcribed. She also detailed how much space all of these recordings take up on her computer.
Much like her Twitter thread, she didn’t devote much time in either email or on the phone to the questions of fabrication. She did address the one specific accusation of plagiarism brought up by the Inanimate Carbon Rod Twitter account, stating it is “just flat out false” while claiming she “likely interviewed the same police official that the other reporter did and was given the same sequence of facts.”
In the end, though, she told us that she “absolutely” stands by all of her reporting and that her editors “have seen all of it” — speaking of her recordings and transcripts — when it comes to the quotes she uses in her articles. She also told us that she wouldn’t release those recordings or transcriptions.
So, have her editors “seen all of it” — and can they vouch for everything that’s been published under her byline for their outlets? And this, folks, is where we enter into territory where we need to be very, very careful.
A number of examples of too-perfect, narrative-fitting quotes and far-fetched scenarios from Zito’s work have been bandied about and debated online. Some of them date back a few years from Zito’s previous outlets. Others are from her two current publications — the New York Post and Washington Examiner.
We have reached out to Examiner politics editor Jim Antle to look into three specific pieces that have drawn skepticism from Zito’s critics. Antle declined to comment for our previous piece on Zito but did state that he would review any examples sent to him.
We also sent over two articles for review to New York Post editor-in-chief Stephen Lynch. (Post op-ed editor Seth Mandel, who along with his wife Bethany has publicly defended Zito over the past couple of days, informed us earlier this week that he is not Zito’s editor.) Lynch did not respond when previously reached for comment on our first article on Zito.
The five examples we sent to the Post and Examiner to be reviewed are not the only questionable pieces from those two outlets and does not represent an exhaustive list. These are posts that fit within a larger pattern that has been observed in her reporting over the years — overwrought quotes from salt-of-the-earth folks during ‘man on the street’ interviews, Zito conveniently overhearing narrative-confirming observations, repeated scenarios and settings (like gas stations and diners).
At the time of publication, we did not hear back from Lynch regarding whether or not the Post would be looking into the two articles of Zito’s we flagged. Antle responded to our request for review with the following one-word email — “Thanks.” We will be sure to update if/when we hear back from them.
It should be noted that it is absolutely possible, and perhaps even likely, that all of these quotes and scenarios are on the level. And if Zito is telling the truth about how she documents her interviews and stories, it should be easy for the editors to come back and provide definitive proof. As previously stated, Zito claims that she audio records most of her interviews. And she told Feinberg that “there is almost always a photographer with me” whenever she talks to folks out on the road.
At the same time, when Feinberg asked Zito for names of photographers to corroborate those conversations, she didn’t hear back.
The ball is now in Zito’s and her editors’ court.