There should be newspapers that we work at where we do this

A conversation with Jonathan M. Katz
Severe and cruel, a lady authoritarian in a green dress: Yvonne Strahovski in the role of Serena Joy Waterford in 'A Handmaid's Tale'
Screenshot: YouTube

Katie Britt, the Republican junior United States senator from Alabama, became a national punchline Thursday night by delivering a  deeply bizarre and disastrous State of the Union rebuttal. Social media was already going nuts over her doom- and sex-laden performance, her rapid swings in tone and mood, and her Gilead green dress before she’d even stopped talking. 

The most influential response, however, came from our fellow Flaming Hydra Jonathan M. Katz, a veteran freelance investigative reporter. While Sen. Britt's melodramatic performance was unfolding, Katz focused in on the substance of her remarks—specifically a story she's told before, in which she denounced President Joe Biden's policies on immigration and border control while recounting how a victim of childhood sex trafficking had shared her horrifying personal experience with her. 

Within minutes, Katz had figured out that Britt was not talking about some newly traumatized child migrant but a fully grown anti-trafficking activist, Karla Jacinto Romero, whose abuse had happened entirely in Mexico and more than a decade ago, so that it had nothing to do with the U.S. border or Biden adminstration policy.  He shared his findings through his TikTok, in a post that has since received 169.6 thousand hearts and 8212 comments. 

Details from Katz’s report have now made it into the New York Times and  last night’s cold open on Saturday Night Live, which featured Scarlett Johansson in the role of Senator Britt. Even the Washington Post’s generally abysmal “Fact Checker” managed to award Senator Britt the maximum four Pinocchios (“whopper” level) for her lies, based on Katz’s reporting.

Maria Bustillos: You're a guy who—you broke the Britt story by yourself, alone, on your TikTok, against all the combined might of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and every Alabama paper, when this information had been sitting in broad daylight? 

It took one curious journalist what must've been only a few minutes to discover that this was—

Jonathan M. Katz: It was really fast. The fastest investigation I think I've ever done, yeah.

How is it that something this important got past everyone? You mentioned in your TikTok that she'd been repeating the story for a long time. Do we know for how long?

The trip was in January '23 and there were hits all throughout 2023. Some of it was on her own website, and some in interviews with other people. 

So yeah, I just plugged it into Google, honestly. I was just like, What's going on? Is there any information here? I think the first thing I typed in was just sort of like, “Senator Britt rape” or something along those lines, or “rape border,” and all these different things came up and as far as I can tell, no one had dug in.

In fairness to everyone else, this was certainly the most prominent space in which she’d ever told the story. So I don't know what kind of coverage the Times is doing of Alabama politics, or of the junior senator from Alabama.

Dude, she's a senator.

Yeah, this is true. It's a good point. I'm not trying to make excuses for them. I'm just trying to sort of think through it.

It's somebody's job; she's a senator?

Yeah. No, this is true. This is true. She's not a senator I cover... I just watched the State of the Union, and then I kept watching while the rebuttal came on and I was like, this is weird… very weird.

And then that anecdote super got my attention because it's about immigration, it's about the border panic, and it seemed to be about Mexico. It's about Del Rio. Del Rio got my attention a lot, because Del Rio was the place where the Haitians–where the incident with... remember the CBP officer on the horse? And there was a debate about whether he was whipping the Haitians. So I was like, oh, Del Rio, I know that spot.


And I've done some reporting on—I was in Mexico. I covered the drug wars in 2011 for AP, maybe it's a little grandiose to say I covered the whole drug wars, but you know what it is, I was there, I was there as Associated Press reporter.

It was your job.

It was my job at the time. When I first started my newsletter in 2019, one of the first things I did was I wrote about how the immigrant detention centers and the family separation policy that Trump was doing fit into the long history of concentration camps in America—that sort of fit into the book that I was writing back then.

Anyway, I went to El Paso with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and so, that part [of Britt’s remarks] really stuck out to me. I was like, This is a thing I can probably fairly quickly figure out, what she's talking about. I didn't realize how fast it would be. I thought, I’ll bookmark this, and then maybe I'll look into it tomorrow. And then, while she was still doing the speech, I was just Googling and I figured it out.

Okay, this is the thing. You found the proof on Senator Blackburn’s website, with all these details, and nobody from her office-


... nobody had bothered to correct this. 


That's how little they care?!

I'm assuming... to do a close read of the way that she told this lie, she was pretty careful until the very end of the anecdote. It's not a long anecdote, in the speech. She was pretty careful about everything that she said, up until she essentially stated flat out that it had all happened in the United States, and that was on its own, out of the context of everything she’d said before and after.

You could sort of squint and say, defensively, that the story was true. She did go to the Del Rio Sector. A woman did say something, that she was in the room to hear. That woman was describing her experience of being sexually trafficked. All of that is true. It just doesn't... She weaves it together into this story that is false, and then gets out way over her skis, in my opinion, and then just lies. Because then she says we wouldn't... Even parsing that one sentence

“This is the United States of America.”

Yeah. And then she was like, “We wouldn't think that this was acceptable in a Third World country.” It's like, well, that's true. No one would think this is acceptable. And then she's like, “This is the United States of America,” and that's also true.

Kyle Whitmire, who's a reporter in Alabamahe won the Pulitzer last year for commentary, and I have some friends in common with him—he reached out to Britt's spokesperson, who got back to him, because he's a reporter in Alabama, and Whitmire posted this on Twitter as well. The spokesman said the story Senator Britt told was 100 percent correct, and then went off to restate his narrative about how it's Joe Biden, fentanyl, sex trafficking, cartels, all that stuff.

And Kyle responded to him and asked, "So you are confirming that she was talking about Karla Jacinto Romero. That's the story that you're talking about.” And apparently he hasn't responded yet, but… all of the details match up. 

[Update: Since this conversation took place, Senator Britt’s office has confirmed to the Washington Post that the story she told in her rebuttal speech was indeed about Karla Jacinto Romero.]

The picture of Romero at the event Britt attended. That's it, surely. That's done and dusted right there.

I mean, yeah, I don't know why nobody else picked up on that, because the big detail that got my attention was that she says that the trafficking had started when this woman was 12, and well, then that can't—Joe Biden's only been president for three years, so he can't—it made no sense. Who's getting trafficked back and forth across the Rio Grande? Something is just not adding up here.

That's what reporters are supposed to do.

Yeah. But the MAGA situation has created this miasma of ideas where it’s no longer information, it's just pure vibes. They don't require anything concrete of their own media, they don’t ask for any facts ever. And so when you watch Tucker Carlson or any right-wing pundit do their thing, it's like… this word salad that doesn't have any connection to verifiable facts. And now, with their frantic attempts to create a stable national media narrative, places like the New York Times or whatever have gotten infected, in my opinion, with this—

One hundred percent.

—this way of looking at things. And so, when you—here's an independent guy with his own megaphone, who has a place to talk freely to people, who doesn't have a big fact checking department or legal department, or any of the other protections that reporters are supposed to have.

You're actually at more risk, because if you were going to say something that wasn't true you could get in gigantic trouble, you’re personally responsible; so people should actually fucking pay attention to what you're saying because you are putting yourself out there in a way that no Times reporter has to worry about in quite the same way—though Times reporters sometimes have to worry about telling the truth for other, different reasons.

In any case, staff reporters for the big papers are supposed to be safer, because they have an institutional might and power behind them, and a union, and legal power, and all that's supposed to help us.

In your case the only thing that protects you is that what you’re saying is true.

Yeah, that's a great question. I used to do this, or I still do this. I don't know, I'm a reporter. I spent eight years with AP. I was with Congressional Quarterly for a time, very early in my career. And then I left AP in 2012, and I've been freelancing for 12 years. And in that time I've written for everyone, including the New York Times, a lot. I mean, I probably did 60 or so stories for them over the years. I had four front pages.

Wow. I didn't know that.

Yeah, I was basically their de facto North Carolina correspondent when I was living in Durham with my wife, because they didn't really have anybody there. I did some international reporting for them, and also for the magazine. But even in the paper, I was still doing stuff on Haiti.  I had a big front-page story with them. I broke the story that the U.N. had brought cholera to Haiti in 2010; six years after that, I was freelancing, and I got the U.N. to admit that they had done it. I was working on a story for the NYT Magazine, and then the paper pulled my story over, and put it on the front page.

I've done this kind of stuff, but I never got health insurance for it. There was never a job at the end of the rainbow because, as you know, the industry has just collapsed. And as long as I'm humblebragging, but I think that it's also pertinent to this: When I was in Washington in 2005, I was 25 years old, I broke the story that Bill Frist, who was the Senate majority leader, had sold off all his stock in his family's hospital company in preparation for his presidential run.

I remember the story.

And that was another instance where I took the step that no one had thought to take. I was in the right place at that moment.  I looked at the stock price, and I saw that he had sold it, and noticed that it had been climbing for months, and then he had sold it right before a precipitous decline. Then I did the followup reporting, and I found out that HCA was doing this huge stock buyback, and that he must have had inside information. His brother was the chairman of the board at the hospital corporation.

And this was a big story, because he’d been considered the front runner for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, which is funny, to think that people had thought he could be president.

But anyway, I was a kid, but I was in the right place at the right time because I was the Kentucky and Tennessee regional reporter in DC for AP, filling in for somebody's maternity leave. I left a couple months after that to go overseas with AP, and that's how I ended up in the Caribbean and Haiti. So all of that's to say I come by this honestly. I've done this stuff before.

But it's also just funny because we're all just out here. I'm on fucking TikTok. I have a fucking newsletter.

I know. But look at that thing, the power of your handmade work. It's so amazing, the irresistibly powerful magnetic attraction between the people who want to know what the fuck is going on, and the people who want to tell it to them. There's all these walls in between us to prevent that contact, walls made of people trying to grab money, but people need and want to know, so much.

It’s a whole ecosystem that we're talking about here, because first of all, and I'm not at all the only one in this, there's a lot of us out here. There should be newspapers that we work at where we do this. 

And then the other piece of it is, there is this good aspect to the democratization of media. In some ways it’s nice that the barriers to entry are lower, because there's nothing to enter into.


The good news is no matter what your background, no matter where you come from, you too can make no money.

You can starve also.

You too can starve by posting crap to social media. So that's good, I guess.

Some people know, when they see my stuff, that I'm a real whole-ass journalist. That I actually have some experience. But I'm guessing that most people probably have no idea.

Oh, yeah, there's some blogger. This is some guy.

Yeah. It's just like, a dude. And I look old, especially on TikTok, because I have no hair.

Well, and also you joke around a lot. You've got a very loose vibe. You don't try to come over all Dan Rather on your TikTok.

That's true. Yeah. I don't think that would even work on there.