East Palestine reveals how right-wing media has continued to poison “citizen journalism”
Independent journalism is essential, but not everyone has good intentions
Self-described “accidental journalist” Nick Sortor has become right-wing media's go-to source for commentary and information on what is happening in East Palestine, Ohio, after 38 train cars carrying toxic chemicals derailed near the town on February 3.
Over three weeks after the derailment, residents of East Palestine still have questions about whether it is safe to be in their homes or use tap water. Messaging from the state and federal government on the response efforts has been unclear and even contradictory at times, fueling conspiracy theories, such as the idea that the derailment was “planned.” The train owner, Norfolk Southern, may be trying to shirk accountability, after aggressively lobbying against railroad regulations that may have prevented the Ohio accident and others like it. This isn’t the company’s first large-scale accident.
In situations like this, independent or citizen journalists and even content creators with relevant expertise can serve as important checks for the government, corporations, and mainstream media.
But the right has utilized this type of journalism to legitimize extreme voices and harmful ideas. Anonymous internet vigilantes and so-called “citizen journalists” like discredited video artist James O’Keefe have capitalized on public distrust in the media to push their dangerous misinformation tactics. In January 2019, Gateway Pundit founder and “dumbest man on the internet” Jim Hoft announced that his outlet would have a White House correspondent with the Trump administration. Now, young influencers like Sortor and independent journalist Savanah Hernandez are taking advantage of disinformation networks and the algorithms driving viral news on social media to fulfill a political agenda and fuel the right-wing outrage machine.
The right-wing media's go-to source on East Palestine is basically just a random guy who showed up in Ohio
Since his arrival in East Palestine, The Roundtable Show co-host Nick Sortor has conducted multiple high-profile interviews with large right-wing news outlets and even mainstream news.
Despite being referred to as a video journalist by multiple news outlets, according to his LinkedIn, Sortor does not have a background in media outside of his role on The Roundtable Show, which mostly discusses cryptocurrency, finance, and sometimes current events. Up until January 2023, though, he described himself as a “political operative.”
While visiting East Palestine at the encouragement of his followers, Sortor captured an East Palestine resident throwing a rock into a clearly oil-sheened creek on video, citing it as proof that the water in the area was “extremely contaminated.” This was not a new or surprising finding. The Ohio EPA had said that some creeks near the derailment were in fact contaminated. The video went viral, staking Sortor’s claim to right-wing legitimacy and amassing over 10 million views. Since Sortor began covering the story, he has gained about 39,000 Twitter followers, nearly an 80% increase.
The video, along with some of Sortor’s other content, has been promoted by right-wing influencers such as conspiracy theorist Benny Johnson, and Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk. On Truth Social, Donald Trump promoted his tweet announcing the former president’s visit to the town.
Sortor is not a resident of East Palestine or even Ohio. Based on a review of his recent content, he appears to have never before had an interest in environmental issues. And yet, he has been asked to speak on issues he seemingly knows nothing about, making vague blanket statements instead of actually answering questions. On the February 14 segment of Tucker Carlson Tonight, Carlson asked Sortor whether the EPA was “tracking where this cloud of chemicals went? I mean it was a local problem, it became a regional problem. Do we have any information on the effects of those clouds of chemicals?” It’s astonishing that out of all the people Fox News could have chosen to answer this question, they chose someone with seemingly no knowledge of the subject. And in fact, Sorotor barely answered the question. “The EPA is not releasing a lot of the data that they've supposedly been collecting,” he replied.
Sortor was chosen as a convenient spokesperson not because of the quality of his coverage, but because of his political beliefs
Besides the viral video, it seems the only thing Sortor could have possibly added to East Palestine coverage would have been his credentials as a journalist, which don’t really exist. To right-wing media, seemingly the only credential that matters is that Sortor is a vocal critic of the Biden administration and an admirer of former President Donald Trump.
In Sortor’s reporting, getting answers for the residents of East Palestine and confronting how the accident happened in the first place came second to attacking the Biden administration and praising Trump. In his interviews and on Twitter, Sortor barely touched on past rail deregulation, or what might be done in the future to prevent such an incident. Sortor is unabashedly MAGA, even using the disaster to encourage people to vote for Trump in 2024.
On top of that, Sortor baselessly claimed that the EPA is somehow allying with Norfolk Southern to bypass the concerns of East Palestine residents. “The government is doing everything they can to help Norfolk Southern get back to their normal operations,” he said on the February 15 segment of OANN’s In Focus with Addison Smith. “Maybe the guilty party here (Norfolk Southern) will end up being the hero,” he said on the February 17 episode of The Charlie Kirk Show. Even according to pro-industry sources, this would not typically be the case. Doomberg, an energy and finance substack run by an anonymous group of “former industry executives” writes: “In our experience, the EPA would not look to minimize the severity of an industrial accident of this type. Quite the opposite.” The substack goes on to note that the agency would never “protect the very corporate interests they otherwise infuriate with their harsh oversight on a daily basis.” Of course, this doesn’t mean there aren’t problems with federal agencies’ approach to handling this incident and concerns about what data has and hasn’t been shared publicly.
Infamous right-wing independent reporter flocks to East Palestine seeking viral content
Sortor was not the only independent journalist drawn to East Palestine. Right-wing influencer and TPUSA contributor Savanah Hernandez showed up to cover Trump’s visit to the town and to harang Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and other transportation department officials when they arrived on Thursday, February 23. Despite highlighting how the media has been ignoring East Palestine, Hernandez herself did not arrive until February 22, over two weeks after the derailment.
Hernandez has thus far dedicated her career to promoting conspiracy theories, having gotten her start on InfoWars with War Room host Owen Shroyer, who was notably named in defamation lawsuits filed by the families of Sandy Hook shooting victims. According to her website, Hernandez was working there at the time the lawsuits were filed.
She later moved on to traveling around the country mostly provoking left-wing activists to propel moral outrage. Hernandez prides herself on having been suspended or banned from Twitter three times and suspended from YouTube four times for violating community guidelines. Twitter CEO Elon Musk reinstated her Twitter account in November.
She is a virulent transphobe known for contributing to the widespread harassment of Lia Thomas, the first trans D-I athlete to win an NCAA title. A video of Hernandez attempting to humiliate some kids at D.C. pride for her viewers was taken down from Twitter but is now up again. She has promoted anti-vax misinformation and once held a “police lives matter” sign at a Black Lives Matter protest. She also took an interest in the World Economic Forum’s annual retreat, where she made it her mission to affirm the Great Reset conspiracy and push climate change denial. Rumble hosts all of Hernandez’s videos that have been removed from YouTube.
Hernandez brought her ill intentions to East Palestine. While participating in interviews on the ground, she repeatedly insisted that Trump was not motivated by publicity when he visited East Palestine. On the February 22 segment of War Room, she told Steve Bannon that Trump was a “true leader who cared about the American people actually here on the ground not for publicity, not for likes, not for followers, not for the cameras, but genuinely to just show the people that he cares.” She also made a similar point in The Ingraham Angle on February 24.
Meanwhile, even some on Fox News have admitted that Trump’s visit was in many ways a publicity stunt. Initially, Fox Business host Stuart Varney actually agreed with Biden’s decision to visit Ukraine instead of Ohio. On the February 21 segment of Varney & Co., he said, “I just don't think there's an equivalent between a train derailment in Ohio, awful as it was, and the development of maybe World War III in Europe. I mean, there's a complete difference, and our president should be over there.” The next day, he admitted that “the train disaster in Ohio has given Donald Trump a political opportunity and he's jumping on it … For Trump, this visit is a major campaign event. His rival, Ron Desantis, made a series of well-received appearances recently, now Trump wants to jump out in front, writing to the rescue of everyday Americans in need.”
Aside from a video of her and another TPUSA reporter confronting a Norfolk Southern representative about what the company would be doing to help residents, Hernandez mostly neglected to mention Norfolk Southern’s role in the incident.
Despite taking credit for almost single-handedly bringing awareness to the issue, these citizen journalists provide almost no helpful information
Both the federal government and Northfolk South have handled the derailment poorly, potentially putting the future of East Palestine and residents of surrounding areas at risk to the effects of long-term chemical exposure. But information about exactly which questions have and haven’t been answered, exactly what we know and what we don’t know, are missing from the sensationalist coverage of right-wing citizen journalists. Listening to these interviews, the only information that one would glean is: Biden is bad, Trump is good, and people are angry. There is so much more to the story.
Particularly as the local news void grows, citizen journalists will seek to fill in the gaps. We’ve seen how it can be a useful resource for public officials and even professional newsrooms, and a force for grassroots democracy, particularly in shedding light on environmental injustice. That — not ill-informed right-wing commentary — is the kind of reporting that the people of East Palestine deserve.