Her Dispatches From Trump Country Are Perfect. Maybe Too Perfect.

There’s something suspicious about Salena Zito’s glowing profiles of Trump voters. Does anyone in conservative media care?

If it weren’t for Donald Trump, Salena Zito would likely still be unknown outside of Pittsburgh. Zito, a former political staffer and consultant, was forty-six when she was hired to write about politics for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in 2005. The paper was then owned by the late conservative billionaire activist Richard Mellon Scaife. It was Zito’s entry to journalism. For eleven years, she served as a hybrid reporter-columnist, filing moderately conservative opinion pieces leavened with folksy, on-the-ground interviews of the everyday people she met driving around small-town Pennsylvania and nearby states.

By the time Trump entered the political scene, Zito was well positioned to document the psychology of his voters—a subject of intense national fascination. A column from August 2016 captures the spirit of her dispatches. Marveling at the number of Trump lawn signs in rural and small-town Pennsylvania, Zito chided “pundits” for underestimating Trump’s popularity and looking down on his base. “While Trump supporters here are overwhelmingly white, their support has little to do with race (yes, you’ll always find one or two who make race the issue) but has a lot to do with a perceived loss of power,” she wrote, clarifying that “these people see a diminishing respect for them and their ways of life, their work ethic, their tendency to not be mobile.” Zito seemed to empathize with this sense of aggrievement. After quoting an unnamed woman who criticized Obama for not commenting enough during tragedies, Zito observed, “Voice such a remark, and you risk being labeled a racist in many parts of America.”

Zito had discovered a promising new beat: the sympathetic Trump voter profile. In September 2016, she made a splash with an Atlantic article in which she observed that, when Trump says something obviously false, “the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” Around the same time, she took a buyout from the Tribune-Review and joined the Rupert Murdoch–owned New York Post as a columnist. The election results, which guaranteed at least another four years of interest in the Trump coalition, only raised Zito’s profile further. The Washington Examiner, a conservative tabloid in D.C., hired her as its national political correspondent. Then came a CNN contributor gig, a Harvard fellowship, and a book deal—leading no less a literary tastemaker than Trump himself to tweet, “ ‘The Great Revolt’ by Salena Zito and Brad Todd does much to tell the story of our great Election victory. The Forgotten Men & Women are forgotten no longer!”

But as Zito’s prominence grew, a national audience started catching wind of whispers that had trailed her since her Pittsburgh days. The loudest criticisms, which came mostly from a handful of popular, anonymous Twitter accounts, centered on two main charges. One was an alleged sin of omission: on at least five occasions, Zito had left out the fact that her interview subjects were not merely ordinary citizens who voted for Trump but also current or past Republican Party officials. Several of these cases come from her book, The Great Revolt, which came out this past May and consists mostly of chapter-length profiles of white Rust Belt voters whose support for Trump is supposed to be in some way remarkable. Zito describes Michigan business owner Dawn Martin and her sisters, for example, as “raised to be Democrats.” She doesn’t mention Martin’s position as secretary of the Lake County GOP.

The other alleged sin was one of commission: many of the quotes Zito obtained from unnamed man-on-the-street voters seemed too good to be true, in a way that consistently echoed Zito’s own political views. Sometimes, the premises of the encounters were implausible, as when she claimed, “In the past three weeks, I have traveled to Chicopee, Mass., Raleigh, NC, Harrisburg, Pa., and hundreds of towns in between,” which would require a pace of at least ten towns per day. Or when she recounted overhearing a conversation between two young men in a car at a gas station—a car she was not in, and which was blasting the radio—praising Tom Cotton for criticizing Obama’s deal with Iran. As the guys drove away, she wrote, she spotted an Obama-Biden bumper sticker.

Other times, her subjects speak in language that just doesn’t sound like the way real people talk, as when a thirteen-year-old French tourist named Mathilde says, “I wish more people young and old would understand the gravity of this moment and apply that kind of grace in their daily lives.”

A Politico profile shortly after the election called Zito “a reporter who saw Trump’s victory coming from miles away.” But this narrative contains an element of mythmaking.

For a while, Zito mostly ignored the criticisms. But over the past summer, the pressure built, especially after an anonymous Twitter account compiled a long list of questionable Zito moments. Eventually the story outgrew the confines of social media, with articles on the controversy appearing online—including a piece by Ashley Feinberg in HuffPost whose headline declared, “Take Salena Zito Neither Seriously Nor Literally On Trump Voters.”

Zito finally had to respond. On September 4, she published a defiant column with the headline “The Twitter Trolls Attacking My Work Are All Wrong.” On the matter of the Republican officials, she argued that since she was up front about them being Republicans, there was no problem. After all, her reporting is about the various surprising elements of the Trump coalition, and many experts, including the Hillary Clinton campaign, had expected Trump to alienate mainstream Republican voters. And the supposedly made-up quotes? Zito provided the transcript of her interview with Mathilde, which, unless it was an expert forgery, showed that the conversation had taken place as written. 

For Zito, it was case closed. “I don’t report what I want to happen, or what I wish had happened,” she concluded. “I report what is happening.” 

There was just one problem: she had inadvertently presented evidence that suggested otherwise.

Central to Zito’s public persona is her unique insight into the Trump coalition—insight derived from “on-the-scene, shoe-leather reporting,” as she and her coauthor, Republican strategist Brad Todd, put it on the first page of The Great Revolt. (Zito provides the in-person reporting, while Todd contributes research and analysis.) A Politico profile shortly after the election called Zito “a reporter who saw Trump’s victory coming from miles away.” 

This narrative contains an element of mythmaking. Zito never quite predicted a Trump victory; she devoted one of her last preelection columns to explaining why a “Trump defeat will be incredibly difficult for his supporters to accept.” Throughout the Republican primary, she was cool toward him. In January 2016, she warned that populism was “radically contaminating conservatism’s values,” and chastised Trump supporters for insisting “that anyone who has been involved in or elected to public office is just plain bad, part of the problem.” In March 2016 she complained of “Trump’s demagoguery, nascent racism, xenophobia and lack of substance on policy issues,” and in April predicted that the Wisconsin primary would be “the moment when Donald Trump fatally faltered.”

Her tone changed after Trump officially locked up the nomination. While she still stopped short of predicting he would win, Zito argued that the media was underestimating his strength and unfairly maligning his supporters. “In interview after interview in all corners of the state, I’ve found that Trump’s support across the ideological spectrum remains strong,” she wrote in August.

This was an argument she had made before. In 2008, she wrote that John McCain had “a brand that resonates [with Pennsylvanians] in the blue-collar areas where their unions are trying to persuade them otherwise.” In 2012, she gushed about the “organic nature” of a Mitt Romney rally in North Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, chiding the “TV networks, national press, Washington elite and establishment Republicans” for overlooking Romney’s popularity among both Democrats and Republicans. (Obama easily won the state both times.)

But in 2016, the Republican nominee finally did exceed expectations, making Zito look prophetic. She seemed to relish thumbing her nose at D.C.- and New York–based journalists who missed the story and “have continued to blow it” since the election. “To recognize the potential of the Trump coalition,” she and Todd write, “analysts would have had to visit places they had stopped visiting and listen to people they had stopped listening to.”

People like Ed Harry, a retired union official in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and the very first person profiled in The Great Revolt. A lifelong Democrat, Harry is the archetypal Obama-Trump voter. His shift, Zito reports, began with free trade agreements. “Blue-collar America essentially had the door shut in its face,” he says. Harry is representative, Zito and Todd write, of “the Luzerne County voters who too many journalists, sitting an easy drive away in their New York bureaus, did not come to meet.”

Except they did come to meet Luzerne County voters—including Ed Harry. By the time the book came out, Harry had been interviewed by at least five separate outlets since 2016, including Newsweek, the Associated Press, and even a writer for Third Way whose piece ran in the Washington Monthly. True, most of these interviews took place after the election; but so did Zito’s.

This shouldn’t be all that surprising. Far from being overlooked, the white working-class Trump voter has been one of the most consistent subjects of media profiles since Trump’s rise. Those reports often include themes that don’t make it into Zito’s columns. Newsweek, for instance, noted that Harry’s complaints about NAFTA drifted into conspiracy theories, including about George Soros paying millions to Black Lives Matter protestors. When I spoke with Harry a few weeks ago, he had plenty to say about free trade, but also about illegal immigration. He was convinced that the United States has an open borders policy, and that sanctuary cities are places where undocumented immigrants are allowed to commit crimes.

Far from being overlooked, the white working-class Trump voter has been one of the most consistent subjects of media profiles since Trump’s rise. Those reports often include themes that don’t make it into Zito’s columns.

“How could you have a sanctuary city where you’ve got a rapist who got convicted and gets let go and they can stay there because of the mayor or whoever it is allowing it to happen in violation of our laws?” he said. “If you or I did that, we don’t have a sanctuary city we can go to. I’d go to jail.”

The point is not to pick on Harry; the point is that regular people have complex and unordered political views. But you wouldn’t know that from reading Zito. Like a Hemingway novel or a Miles Davis solo, her reporting is distinctive less for what it includes than for what it leaves out. The motivations of white Rust Belt voters that emerge in her reporting are, without fail, morally unimpeachable: Obama took the country in the wrong direction; trade deals have screwed them over; elites look down on regular Americans; politicians are liars; and Trump, while not perfect, tells it like it is. Any uglier sentiments—racism, sexism, xenophobia, conspiracy theories—are conspicuously absent, as is any interrogation of where those attitudes come from.

Indeed, the most notable gap in Zito’s reporting may be the role of conservative media itself. Why do white voters in Pennsylvania feel such a powerful sense of grievance? Where does Ed Harry get the idea that the U.S. has an open borders policy? By airbrushing her subjects’ more extreme beliefs, Zito avoids having to acknowledge their likely origin: Fox News and the broader right-wing media apparatus of which she is a part.

Still, there’s a difference between leaving things out and making things up. A reporter does not promise to tell the reader everything that happened, but she does promise that everything she does tell the reader really did happen. In Zito’s case, that means quoting her subjects faithfully. Which brings us to Dave Rubbico.

Rubbico is one of the most controversial characters in the Zito universe. A lifelong Democrat from Erie, Pennsylvania, he went from voting twice for Obama to casting a ballot for Trump, decking himself out in MAGA gear, and slapping an Infowars bumper sticker on his pickup truck. He’s also one of the voters in The Great Revolt whom Zito didn’t identify as an elected Republican—which, critics suggested, meant he wasn’t the swing voter she portrayed him as.

In her rebuttal column on September 4, Zito dwelled on Rubbico at length. The fact that he’s a Republican official is irrelevant, she pointed out, since he ran for the local Republican committee only after the 2016 election. Point: Zito.

Then she overplayed her hand. She posted the audio of an interview with Rubbico, plus a partial transcript, in which he explains how he grew disillusioned with Obama after twice voting for him. But the recording also revealed three small yet clear discrepancies between the interview and the way Zito reported it in the book. First, in the audio, Rubbico says he thought Obama “was too much with diplomacy and not enough for action.” But in the book, there’s a word added: Obama “was too much with delicate diplomacy” (emphasis mine).

Later in the recording, Rubbico—a jaded former welfare case worker—says, “Clients were encouraged to defraud the system, management from Harrisburg on down, like trickle down with President Reagan and stuff. But Harrisburg said they’re more interested in making clients happy instead of the accuracy of taxpayer-funded benefits.” Here’s how Zito renders it in the book: “The clients were encouraged to defraud the system. There was corruption. Harrisburg said they’re more interested in making clients happy instead of the accuracy of taxpayer-funded benefits.” 

At this point in the tape, Rubbico goes into a long complaint about how the people gaming the system were specifically immigrants and refugees. Zito responds by asking, “So the corruption bothered you?” Rubbico, who up to that point hasn’t mentioned corruption, replies, “Fraud, corruption, yeah,” before relaying another anecdote about a manipulative Iranian. But the material about immigrants and refugees is totally absent from the book. Instead, Zito quotes Rubbico seemingly spontaneously saying, “There was too much fraud and corruption, yeah.”

All in all, in the one interview tape that Zito shared with the world—to prove the accuracy of her reporting—there were three examples of her adding words that the speaker didn’t actually say.

The motivations of white Rust Belt voters that emerge in Zito’s reporting are, without fail, morally unimpeachable. Any uglier sentiments—racism, sexism, xenophobia, conspiracy theories—are conspicuously absent.

These changes are small, but they betray an intention to sanitize her subject’s views. Being against diplomacy as such is a bit extreme, but accusing Obama’s foreign policy of being “delicate” is a mainstream Republican position. Complaining about immigrants looks a lot like the xenophobia that Zito insists is barely present in the Trump coalition; better to replace it with generic concerns about corruption. “These are definitely deliberate attempts to massage the quotes to make the point in a way the author wanted the point made, not the way the speaker wanted the point made,” said Kelly McBride, senior vice president at the Poynter Institute and an expert on journalistic ethics, in an email.

At the same time, the changes were subtle enough that it would be extremely unlikely for the speaker to notice them. Which raises the question: How often does Zito use this technique? I was struck, for instance, at how many of the people profiled in The Great Revolt—twelve of twenty-three, by my count, including Ed Harry—are quoted saying that voting for Trump wasn’t about Trump, or politics, but rather about “community” or “being a part of something bigger” than themselves. I called a few of these people up and asked questions that I thought would yield similar answers. They didn’t; no one mentioned anything close. Had Zito fed them her own thoughts, then brushed up the quotes to make it look like their idea, the way she did with Rubbico and “corruption”? There’s no way to know without hearing the tapes.

A few weeks ago, I reached out to Zito for an interview. She declined, but offered to answer questions via email, so I typed up the quote discrepancies and asked her how they came about.

“I would never manipulate what a source or interview subject says,” she wrote back. “That was not the full audio of Rubbico and I interviewed him additional times after that. That portion was used to show he voted for Obama twice and then Trump.”

For reference, here is the full context of the “delicate” quote as it appears in the book: “Instead of being a … How can you say it? Instead of being someone who does a job, he was being someone pussyfooting around, and he was too much with delicate diplomacy and not enough for action.” That entire passage is in the audio, too, word for word—with the sole exception of “delicate.” In her explanation, Zito seemed to be saying that Rubbico had uttered the exact same paragraph twice—down to pausing and asking, “How can you say it?”—in two different conversations, except for one word.

Again, it’s a small change; one could imagine it being the result of an honest, if careless, mistake. But Zito was denying that it was a change at all. I wrote back expressing my skepticism. But I pointed out that if she sent me audio recordings showing that the quotes came from different conversations, it would put the matter to rest.

“I will not be sharing anymore [sic] audio,” she replied. “For clarity the quotes that I used in the book are exactly how he said it in a series of broad interviews and questions, what was released was just a tiny snippet.”

That was on a Friday. The following Monday, I emailed the editors of the New York Post and Washington Examiner. I included the discrepancies and described them as “strong evidence” that Zito had manipulated quotes. I asked whether they had made any effort to audit Zito’s articles for accuracy or had any plans to do so.

I never heard from the Post, but Hugo Gurdon, the editorial director of the Examiner, quickly emailed me back: “These are not ‘strong evidence’ of manipulation, as you suggest. They are pusillanimous quibbles. When the smear campaign against Salena began on social media a few weeks ago we looked into it and we are satisfied that the allegations are worthless.” I called Gurdon to follow up, since his suggestion that the discrepancies weren’t a big deal was at odds with Zito’s argument that there were no discrepancies. But he refused to elaborate on the record and quickly hung up.

A half hour later, I got an email from Zito. It read, in part: “After thinking about this over the weekend, I realize I may have not given you the clearest answer to your question; when I went back with subsequent interviews with Mr. Rubbico I posed some of his answers that he gave to me as questions to get clarity, those answers are the direct quotes in the book. I hope that makes better sense.”

She still declined to send me the recordings of those subsequent interviews.

Zito insists that she records almost all of her interviews. That presumably includes quotes like this one, from August, which Zito attributed to a middle-aged Ohio woman:

For decades I have been inspired by aspiring politicians and elected officials who took to the podium or the camera and delivered poetic speeches to earn my trust and my support. They would sway me with expressive words and artfully delivered promises. . . . It took me a while to realize those words weren’t theirs, but skillfully crafted sentences that had been massaged and focus-group tested by a full staff of speechwriters and strategists.

Of course, it’s possible that someone really said this— just as it’s possible that, as Zito writes, this conservative voter “shudders as she imagines what kind of problems she would encounter if she gave her name, so she declines.” But the combination of a contrived-sounding quote with a thin rationale for anonymity might have prompted a conscientious editor to ask to check the tape.

If any of Zito’s editors have been moved to scrutinize her work, however, they’ve been quiet about it. Frank Craig, until 2016 the editor of the Pittsburgh Review-Tribune, who Zito says in The Great Revolt taught her “to trust her instincts,” didn’t respond to interview requests. Neither did Seth Mandel, until recently the opinion editor of the New York Post, who helped Zito put together her September 4 rebuttal column. (He has since taken a new job—at the Washington Examiner.) Neither did Stephen Lynch, editor of the New York Post, nor Tina Constable, the head of Crown Forum, which published The Great Revolt. The Washington Examiner’s Hugo Gurdon, the one editor who responded to me, refused to specify how exactly the paper had “looked into” the case against Zito.

Accusations of fraud by reporters occur at mainstream and liberal publications too, of course. But compare their reactions. The New Republic exhaustively investigated the serial fabrications of Stephen Glass. The New York Times published a damning report on its own former staffer, Jayson Blair, on the front page of the Sunday paper, and forced two top editors to resign. Lower-profile cases are common. The Houston Chronicle recently parted ways with veteran reporter Mike Ward after someone else on staff raised questions about whether Ward’s man-on-the-street interviews had really taken place. The paper even brought in an outside investigator to determine how deep the fraud had gone.

As I reported this story, I came to think Zito may well be a victim—not of Twitter trolls, but of the culture of the publications she has worked for. She came to journalism late in life, from a nontraditional background. Did anyone ever show her the ropes?

All journalists, liberal or conservative, have convictions and ambitions that can drive them to greatness or lead them astray. Serious publications try to manage these traits by nurturing internal cultures of questioning and dissent, by imposing rigorous editing and fact checking, and by being transparent with the public when these systems fail.

To say that conservative media does not generally hew to the same professional standards is not a novel observation. In a speech at the 2009 Conservative Political Action Conference, Tucker Carlson, of all people, insisted that conservatives needed to create publications more like the New York Times—“a paper that actually cares about accuracy.”

The irony is that honest, rigorous on-the-ground reporting of the kind Zito claims to practice is exactly what conservative media, and the conservative movement, could use more of. Real life is complicated, and complexity is anathema to ideology. If conservative publications were more committed to accurate reporting, there might be some hope for the movement itself to reverse its decades-long drift away from objective reality.

Such a shift doesn’t seem terribly likely at the moment. At this point, there is so little daylight between conservatism and Trumpism that the amount of cognitive dissonance required to maintain loyalty could never sustain prolonged engagement with honest storytelling.

In that depressing sense, Zito may be the ideal reporter for the Trump era. While she lacks the president’s taste for aggression, she shares his ironclad commitment never to admit fault. So, evidently, do her employers. And they display the same instinct for projecting their own pathologies onto their opponents. “A few journalists, particularly those who rarely if ever leave the Washington Beltway or Midtown Manhattan, want to discredit my work because of what it reports,” she wrote in her September 4 column. “They want to silence the voices I listen to and record.”

If anything, Zito’s steady rise suggests the opposite: a hunger on the part of a national audience, including elite media, to better understand the Trump electorate. The question they should be asking is: Whose voice are they really hearing?

Gilad Edelman

Gilad Edelman is editor of the Washington Monthly.