Besides PTSD-laden labor reporter Mike Elk, you know who had a tough week?
That would be Salena Zito, a Pittsburgh-based national political correspondent for the right-leaning The Washington Examiner, a CNN contributor, and a columnist for the New York Post, who fell into the crosshairs of Elk’s wrath this week while covering the tragedy at the Tree of Life Synagogue. Elk got in her face and started yelling at her, calling her an “anti-Semite” for her coverage of President Trump.
He isn’t sorry and maintains that she deserved it.
In middle of a somber moment at staging area while I was talking to a member of the Jewish community this @guardian reporter started screaming at me that I was an anti-Semite/that I caused shooting because I reports on Trump & to leave and kept screaming in my face to get out pic.twitter.com/t8shcgTR9W
— SalenaZito (@SalenaZito) October 27, 2018
Elk has since offered a non-apology apology, saying he’s sorry if he offended her.
“My apologies if you were offended by what I said,” Elk wrote on Twitter Saturday, the same day he publicly berated Zito. “I grew up in this neighborhood and as a Jew, have long dealth w/anti-antisemitism [sic] in Western PA. It was an emotional time to see Jews from my neighborhood murdered for merely being Jews.”
He added, “My apologies again if you were offended.”
Zito, who also grew up in Pittsburgh and attended events at Tree Hill Synagogue, said she walked away shaken by the incident with Elk.
“I didn’t stop shaking until midnight that night, that’s how much he scared me,” Zito told me by phone Wednesday. …It was a terrifying experience.”
Jordan Schachtle, who works for CRTV, tried to comfort her, writing on social media, “I’m sorry that deranged lunatic did that. He does not speak for me or my fellow co-religionists.”
She replied, “Thank you. I’m still shaking, what really upsets me is this is what happens when a lie travels. Or even worse, when people believe what they want because it reinforces their side.”
Zito did not accept Elk’s apology.
I understand @mikeElk apologized by saying “if you were offended“
I can’t see his apology because he blocked me. Of course you offended me you screamed at me calling me an anti-Semite , blamed me for the shooting in front of people within the community & scared the heck out of me pic.twitter.com/yVMOulCrPE
— SalenaZito (@SalenaZito) October 27, 2018
So I phoned Elk.
“It’s been a rough week, as you would imagine,” Elk told The Mirror by phone. “I’ll be straightforward with you. She showed up to the scene of a shooting. She was talking to someone who was in grief and was arguing with them and trolling them and saying it [the tragedy] had nothing to do with politics.”
He continued, “I was pretty upset. More than a dozen reporters oversaw this incident.” (He mentioned that the reporters who bore witness to the scene come from the left-leaning pubs like Mother Jones and the Guardian.)
Elk told me he does not remember exactly what he said to Zito, but hoped he didn’t swear at her. He said he told people who were grieving not to talk to Zito because she was a pro-Trumper.
“She was haranguing a family,” he told me. “I was protecting the family. She was trying to troll them, saying really offensive stuff. She came up and grabbed me on the shoulder and started yelling at me. She just got really in my face really quickly.”
Zito disputes that she ever touched Elk, got in his face or that she ever interviewed a grieving family.
“I never touched him,” she said. “I’m a grandma, right? I was just trying to calm it down. He looked really upset … I’m 5 [feet] 2 [inches], soaking wet. Anybody over 6 [feet] looks like a giant to me.”
As for arguing with a grieving family, she replied, “Oh my God, no. I interviewed two gentlemen. Mr. Zimmerman was the only person I talked to on the scene. I don’t think at that point there were any family members there. Remember, this was a staging area for the press.”
Elk insists she is partially to blame for the killings. “Salena Zito has blood on her hands,” he said. “I’m not going to apologize to her for calling her an anti-Semite. She is an anti-Semite. She’s a fabulist — she’s a fraud. She should be fired from CNN.”
Zito told The Mirror that Elk was a stranger. “I’d never even heard of him,” she said. “I could see out of the corner of my eye someone coming towards us. Most reporters never think it’s about them. And then he started screaming at me.”
Elk phoned me back to say that Zito is “scaring the shit out of his family” because of all the death threats he says he has been receiving on the Twitter-like site, Gab. “She’s a goy from the suburbs, you know that, right?” he asked.
When I told Zito this, she asked me to explain what “goy” meant and just sighed with what sounded like disgust or aggravation at the response. She also expressed fears about what Elk might do in the future.
In our earlier conversation, Elk seemed to show a morsel of remorse but then slammed her: “I’m sorry if I swore, but I nearly got killed with the reporters who also showed up. When I showed up, there was an active shooter situation. It was a scary scary situation. She shows up like an ambulance chaser that she is.”
Many observers sided with Zito. She received many emails from journalists who sympathized with her getting attacked by Elk and had stories to share.
But not everyone was so easy on her. Sophia Tesfaye, a deputy politics editor for the liberal site Salon, wrote, “CNN camera just caught Salena Zito taking a selfie in front of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting scene.”
Note to readers: Zito said she was taking a picture of the swat team walking down Murray Avenue. “I had to raise the camera up high because I’m so short,” she said, explaining she wanted to get an accurate count of the deputies. She says it was not intended to be a selfie. She says she rarely takes selfies, as they are “awful” and “egocentric.”
In the November/December issue of Washington Monthly, Zito got called on the carpet for her Trump coverage. The headline and deck speak volumes:
“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?”
In the piece, Zito and one of her editors, The Washington Examiner‘s Hugo Gurdon, repeatedly try to defend her work and then cut the reporter off when asked to release all of her audio recordings. In the end, the story is a hit piece and questions the validity of her work. But none of it is concrete — it all feels like the reporter’s hunch on Zito, whom the writer portrays as a Trump suck-up.
Elk has a tendency to drop pity bombs. In September 2018, he used the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashana, to ask potential readers for funding. Since Saturday, he has had all sorts of transportation drama while covering the gruesome Pittsburgh scene.
“Ugh shelled out a ton in cabs and expenses covering the massacre this week,” Elk wrote on Twitter Wednesday morning.
“If anyone wants to contribute to our rental car fund that’d be great! I hate when employers don’t pay on time, which is happening to me today (not @GuardianUS). Now I’m short on rental car costs as I travel to Racine. I hate the hoops freelancers have to jump through to get paid on time!”
At 9:45 a.m. Wednesday: “Ugh @lyft your app isn’t working and I need to catch a flight – can you do something to help me?”
A Lyft rep wrote back, “Hi there, we’re happy to look into this for you, will you DM us the phone number associated with your Lyft account?”
A little backstory on Elk: He’s a former reporter for Politico, who did not leave the pub on good terms. Politico fired him in August 2015. They ultimately reached a settlement that earned him substantial thousands of dollars for his alleged hardships. He then badmouthed Politico higher-ups mercilessly, calling them “unethical suckups.” Washington Free Beacon made him its “Man of the Year.”
In 2016, he was arrested in Tennessee for public drunkenness. A judge subsequently banned him from frequenting a bunch of bars in Chattanooga. That same year, he spoke of his ex-Politico boss’s genitalia. He also talked about the genitalia of a Chattanooga bar owner, who shockingly admitted that his junk may be petite.
Elk now runs a labor journalism operation called The Payday Report. He’s also a columnist for the Guardian.
On Saturday, the day of the shootings and the day he shouted at Zito, Elk sounded like he was engulfed in anxiety and grief:
“As a reporter, my first instincts this morning we’re to run to the scene of the massacre,” he wrote on Twitter. “Just now I stopped for lunch and the tears hit. I grew up in this neighborhood, I go out to eat here all the time. Are we gonna be targeted again?”
A follower asked, “Was the lunch before or after you went all psycho on Salena Zito?”
Elk found time to mention his PTSD, which is his common refrain whenever he feels uncomfortable or behaves badly.
“AS [sic] a PTSD survivor from covering workplace death, I realized that sometimes we have to step back from coverage,” he wrote Tuesday. “After rushing to the scene Saturday morning and working non-stop for several days and writing 3 articles, I’ve reached that point. It’s my neighborhood & just tough.”
And this: “It’s not admitting defeat to step away in these situations, its self-care and right now, I need to focus on something too positive. I caught the bus for years in front of that synaguage [sic] and can replay the shooting events outside of it far too realistically in my head.”
Elk is nothing if not self-aware.