How the New York Times suckers itself into publishing Republican propaganda

The New York Times has been caught, once again, passing off Republican operatives as “regular” Republican voters in an article intended to show how effectively Trump is maintaining his support.

It raises serious questions about whether Times editor and reporters, rather than actually trying to determine how voters feel, are setting out to find people to mouth the words they need for predetermined story lines that, not coincidentally, echo the Trump campaign’s propaganda.

In the latest case, an article posted on Wednesday headlined “Around Atlanta, Many White Suburbanites Are Sticking With Trump” by Times national reporter Elaina Plott initially misidentified two of the four allegedly run-of-the-mill voters who supported the article’s thesis: That Trump’s unfounded fear-mongering along the lines that “ANTIFA THUGS WILL RUIN THE SUBURBS!” is working.

The lead anecdote came courtesy of Natalie Pontius, who was simply identified as “an interior decorator, married with two children and a University of Georgia alumna.”

“The riots, the push to defund the police — that’s not the direction our country needs to go,” Plott quoted Pontius as saying. “I feel like the Democratic Party is continually trying to come up with ways to divide us.”

Pontius, it turns out, was a paid political consultant for a Republican candidate for Georgia’s House of Representatives in 2018.

Plott also quoted Jake Evans, initially identified simply as “an attorney in Atlanta.”

Evans insisted that the polls showing Biden and Trump in a dead heat in Georgia are deceptive, because “you’ll go to dinner with moderate or right-leaning voters who would never say in their workplace that they’re voting for Trump, but when you’re in private, it’s all day, every day.”

Evans, it turns out, chairs the state’s branch of the Republican National Lawyers Association, is the immediate past president of the Atlanta Young Republicans, is a member of Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s election-security task force — and he’s the son of Randy Evans, a Republican heavy-hitter rewarded by Trump with a cushy gig as ambassador to Luxembourg.

And this isn’t the first Times story like this to feature ringers. In a notorious June 2018 story by political reporter Jeremy Peters – headlined “As Critics Assail Trump, His Supporters Dig In Deeper,” the supposedly ordinary Republican woman in the lead anecdote turned out to be a board member of an ultra-conservative PAC.

A Whole Host of Questions

Among a legion of questions raised by this latest incident, my first has to be: Who assigned this story? What were they thinking?

Because the fact that the reporter couldn’t find real people to support its thesis suggests that she was assigned to produce precisely the story she did. (So does the URL, which I suspect reflects the editor’s original “slug” for the story: “atlanta-trump-voters-women.”)

Who looked at the latest poll data showing that a solid majority of white college-educated folks in Georgia are still backing Donald Trump and concluded that Trump’s inflammatory post-George Floyd rhetoric was working?

Because, guess what? Given how the polls also show that support has been pretty steady over the last six months and longer, I’m pretty sure that isn’t the real reason.

(Or to the extent that Trump’s transparently dishonest “law and order” rhetoric is essentially one big dog-whistle for racism, maybe it actually is.)

And why is the Times continuing to buy into the framing of Trump’s racist language and lawbreaking actions as a “law-and-order” message? The article used the term three times – including once in its subhead – without any caveats. As I’ve noted before, the Times is making a mistake in failing to heed Washington Post opinion columnist Greg Sargent‘s warning that “any news organization that uncritically describes President Trump’s reelection campaign as premised on ‘law and order’ appeals, without placing his concerted efforts to destroy the rule of law in America front and center alongside them, is helping to drain those words of all meaning.”

Who at the Times requested a story that doesn’t seem to be supported by the facts, that essentially provides cover for Trump’s overt appeals to racism and lawbreaking, and that suggests it was good politics?

This, I’m afraid, is Dean Baquet’s newsroom in a nutshell, where the anachronistic notion of “objectivity” is horribly misapplied to produce both-sides stenography instead of calling out liars and racists.

There are specific questions about how this article was produced.

Did Plott know the people she quoted weren’t ordinary voters? Did she want to know? Did she ask? Did she hide it from her editors as well as her readers? How did she get their contact information?

To be clear: Reporters should take great care to find actually “average” voters before identifying them as such; they should carefully question those voters to make sure they aren’t ringers; they should verify that by checking around; and their editors should do likewise.

And there’s the broader question of how the Times and other national news organizations find “regular people” to interview – especially in the age of Covid.

At this point, I think news organizations need to get a lot more transparent about how they go about this, at the risk of losing the readers’ trust entirely.

(As a counterpoint to the Times’ story, consider this one by Time magazine’s Charlotte Alter, the result of a three-week road trip through the battleground states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, in which she describes finding a powerful strain of “unlogic”: “reason distorted by suspicion and misinformation.”)

Going forward, readers deserve to know exactly how the reporters found their way to the “average” people they quote, to judge for themselves how typical or atypical they may be. How many people did the reporters talk to before they found the person they needed for their story? What questions did they ask?

And finally, I need to bring up a point I’ve made repeatedly before: Simply quoting Trump supporters who mouth crazy talking points (whether they’re ringers or not) is a terrible disservice to the reader.

Why are they saying these things? How can they possibly believe they are true? Consider Pontius’s quote: “I feel like the Democratic Party is continually trying to come up with ways to divide us.” What does she even mean by that? What leads her to that conclusion?

I think voter interviews are important. I’d like to see more interview with Biden voters, for instance. But when it comes to Trump supporters, simply quoting them without trying to actually understand where they’re coming from isn’t good journalism. The key is for reporters to explore not just voters’ political opinions, but their core values — especially those related to pluralism and authoritarianism – and their news sources.

The Sleuth

The hero in this story is Charles Bethea, a New Yorker staff writer — and Twitter.

Bethea quickly recognized Jake Evans:

That’s because Bethea had actually written a short profile of Evans for the New Yorker in 2018, when Evans was president of the Atlanta Young Republicans.

Eventually, after sleuthing by Zach Kopplin, an investigator for the Government Accountability Project, and Georgia attorney Eric Teusink, Bethea also announced:

As Vice writer Laura Wagner pointed out, archly:

Evans would have been pretty easy to spot.

New Yorker staff writer Isaac Chotiner recapped the mess, leading University of Michigan law professor Sam Bagenstos to cry foul:

The tweets eventually resulted in corrections being appended to the original story on Friday:

An earlier version of this article referred incompletely to Jake Evans, an attorney and voter in Atlanta. Mr. Evans chairs the state’s branch of the Republican National Lawyers Association and has been appointed to Gov. Brian Kemp’s election-security task force. The article also misstated Mr. Evans’s age. He is 33, not 31.

An earlier version of this article referred incompletely to Natalie Pontius, an interior decorator near Atlanta. In 2018 she served as a consultant for a Republican candidate for a seat in the Georgia House of Representatives.

The Times for some inscrutable reason also published a second, vastly truncated version of Plott’s story on the web on Thursday. Evans is gone from this version entirely. Pontius is moved from the lede to the kicker – but still not identified as an operative.

Who ordered up the second version? Why? And who failed to edit that?

This is a New York Times management failure, more than a reporting failure, though it is that, too.

UPDATE AT 5:30 p.m. ET

The reporter on the story, Elaina Plott, and the Times’s political editor, Patrick Healy, have now tweeted explanations.

Plott wrote that she simply failed to do her “due diligence.”

Healy, in a five-tweet thread, wrote that the premise of the story was to “understand factors” leading white college-educated white voters to back Trump. “We believe the premise and the story are sound,” he wrote.

He wrote that the shorter version was simply a “Live Briefing” item. He did not explain why that item still misidentifies Pontius.

“The omission of information was an honest mistake; we were not trying to hide details,” he wrote.

But Plott’s excuse is almost too stupid to be believed. Did she not ask about their background? Did they mislead her? A simple Google search would have turned up Evans’s obvious conflict. Did she not want to know?

Healy did not address how Plott came to contact the people she quoted, what her orders or preconceptions were, where those orders originated, who edited the story, or how. All in all, an entirely unsatisfactory explanation.



  1. It’s time to make up a list. Who are the current aides, employees, hired help now working for President Trump?

    You may not care who you work with, who you employ, or who you associate with. But it would behoove you to know who was a former member of the Ku Klux Klan, for example. That does NOT mean you wish those people harm. But it does mean you should know who they are.

    So let’s start now. We know who the many are who have been fired, who have resigned, who just aren’t there anymore. But we need the names of the people who are currently Donald Trump’s associates.

    Who are they?

  2. The NY Times has been normalizing fascism and Nazism since they arouse in the 1920’s. From stories explaining that Hitler’s feral verbal hatred of Jews was just a rhetorical device used to get some votes and wasn’t real to the Nazi guy in Toledo who was just a quie andt pretty good neighbor, nothing has ever changed.

    The best way to understand this is that Wall Street is OK with fascism and since that is the Times big industry they go along. Then overarching rational for is the idea that liberalism demands that all sides get an equal and fair voice. That fascisms side rejects democracy is ignored. Throw in that 60 to 70 percent of Americans are fascist, at least nominally and you can understand that any business must accommodate fascism.

    If you don’t know what fascism is.

  3. Look at her linkedin
    She was a Willliam F Buckley Jr intern at the National Review
    She came from Yale History, they have a WFBjr club there, the faculty do.
    See info related to that. Key people Donald Kagan, George Will, David Brooks
    Elaina Plott has pic and link to Ann Coulter thing, right now, currently, on her linkedin page

  4. From her personal website: My name is Elaina. I was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I graduated from Yale in 2015. I now live in D.C., where I am a staff writer at The Atlantic.

    I was formerly a staff writer at Washingtonian and a Buckley Fellow at National Review. I’ve written lots of fun stuff for Pacific Standard, GQ, the Daily Beast, the New York Observer, Harper’s BAZAAR and Town & Country.

    • I’m a little confused by her bio. She wrote this for the NYT, and her Twitter page says she’s a staff writer there. Her site on WordPress says she’s a staff writer at The Atlantic but makes no mention of the NYT. In any event, her background is marked with jobs and associations with conservative publications — National Review and two internships with The New York Observer when it was owned by Jared Kushner.

      This is what you get when you hire someone five years out of college and with a clear political bias to cover national politics for the national paper of record: bush-league journalism.


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