Last week, HuffPost reported on allegations that Trump Country-whispering journalist Salena Zito fabricated reporting and omitted key parts of her interview subjects’ indentities for the sake of narrative. Zito shot back Tuesday night with a full-throated defense of her work in the New York Post which included audio, transcripts, and notes from some of the interviews called into question.
One line of defense centered around an interview in her book, The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics, with David Rubbico, whom Zito characterized as a “lifelong Democrat” who’d soured on former President Barack Obama. Rubbico, as an anonymous Twitter account pointed out, currently holds a position as a Republican committee member in Erie, PA. Zito wrote in the Post:
Another example: My portrayal of Erie voter Dave Rubbico. [HuffPost’s Ashley] Feinberg: “The problem here is with Zito’s characterization of Rubbico as some sort of swing voter.” Well, he says quite clearly that he voted for Obama twice, had voted Democrat all of his life, but by the second term had soured on Obama. Feinberg points to Rubbico’s disenchantment with Obama in a 2017 op-ed he wrote as proof he could not possibly be a swing voter. Feinberg and others can call a lifelong Democrat who swung his vote to the GOP in 2016 whatever they want, but “swing voter” is so obviously correct that it’s baffling we’re having this conversation. Readers and listeners can decide for themselves: The audio of my interview with Rubbico is included below.
In one of the passages of her book, Zito includes this quote, attributed to Rubbico:
It got harder and harder to accept the administration, it got harder and harder to accept everything. 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. It got harder and harder to deal with that. There was too much fraud and corruption, yeah.
However, in the audio Zito published in the Post, Rubbico’s quote is critically different than how it appears in her book. While the quote is cleaned up a bit—which is not uncommon when journalists transcribe interviews—the audio shows that his last sentence about “fraud and corruption” came after an extended rant about immigrants Rubbico claims he encountered during his time as a case worker at the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, and which Zito conveniently cut out.
Here’s a full excerpt of the conversation between Zito and Rubbico that the quote is drawn from, per her own audio (emphasis mine):
David Rubbico: I was forced into early retirement almost three years ago.
Salena Zito: Do you mind if I ask?
Rubbico: I can give you an answer, I can give you an honest answer.
Zito: I want an honest answer.
Rubbico: It got harder and harder to accept, um, the administration—It got harder and harder to accept, um, everything. 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. It got harder and harder to deal with that.
Rubbico: And then immigrants and refugees were really, we would be first up when they come to the states it seems. All of the refugees can’t get benefits for five years, immigrants became the big problem.
I can’t say names because of confidentiality, but basically there was a family from…Iraq? From the biggest city in Iraq or somewhere, him and his wife and all their kids: “Hey Mr. Rubbico, give me money. Give me money.” I said “Sir, you’ll get all of the money you’re entitled to.” “Give me money,” and then he’d wear a three-piece suit. Who cares? But then we sent him on job leads and he’d work thirty minutes and quit because it was too dirty. So I sanctioned their food stamps, and I believe we terminated the family’s food stamps, but when Obama became president, a lot of that stopped and became very hard. Unless we were willing to give a right foot or right hand, you don’t dare take a client’s benefits away. So that contributed to it, the way immigrants rip off the system.
A Romanian woman who had a job working with her two ex husbands. Who cares? But with all her gold jewelry, and her two cell phones, and she kept talking on the freaking cell phone when i’m trying to conduct an interview. I was very apprehensive about asking her to put the phone down. And she bragged that she owned property, but it was in Europe. And we couldn’t enforce her to make her sell it to get on food stamps, so she’s allowed to have property there and get benefits here.
Zito: So the corruption bothered you?
Rubbico: Fraud, corruption, yeah. But basically management was saying at a state level, make clients happy at all costs. And I wasn’t ready to deal with it anymore. And there was an Iranian immigrant who had a nice, good job at [unintelligible] and they end up getting pregnant by their boyfriend, and didn’t know where the boyfriend lived, but still got pregnant. I almost blurted out, “What, did you do it through the keyhole?” But I stopped myself.
So, based on her own recording, it appears that Zito essentially spoonfed Rubbico this too-perfect line to close out a thought that came before an anti-immigrant rant, and then pasted it right on the end of a nice and clean quote from a few minutes prior, trimming all the xenophobic (and in the last case, sexist) fat in the process. (Splinter reached out to Zito for comment but hadn’t received a response on Thursday morning. We’ll update this post if we do.)
In her long-winded defense in the Post, Zito blamed mainstream journalists for seeking to “silence the voices” of the Trump supporters she claims to dutifully amplify. She wrote:
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. They want to silence the voices I listen to and record. They think of 2016 as a fluke, of the voters who elected Trump as victims of some mass temporary insanity. They don’t believe there really are Trump supporters who are complex, who defy traditional party lines, who are central figures in the good, bad and ugly aspects of what has and still is happening in and to America. They don’t just dislike such people, they dismiss and disparage them.
As wrong as dismissing Trump voters out of hand might be, so too is molding them into characters who came to support the president through careful consideration about bureaucracy, rather than his appeals to racial animus. Ironically enough, Zito seems to be the one silencing Trump’s supporters by portraying them as who she might want them to be, rather than who they are.