A cloud of scandal hung over Tuesday’s announcement that the Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign had hired investigative journalist David Sirota to fill the role of senior adviser and speechwriter. An article in The Atlantic by Edward-Isaac Dovere, titled “Bernie Sanders Just Hired His Twitter Attack Dog,” made the explosive claim that the veteran journalist had been secretly working for Sanders behind the scenes since December, and using his role as a journalist to attack the Vermont senator’s potential primary opponents.
“Since December, David Sirota has, on Twitter, on his own website, and in columns in The Guardian, been trashing most of Sanders’s Democratic opponents—all without disclosing his work with Sanders—and has been pushing back on critics by saying that he was criticizing the other Democrats as a journalist,” Dovere wrote, moving on to note that thousands of Sirota’s tweets had been deleted.
It was a story that seemed tailor-made to go viral—a political unmasking of a candidate whose brand was integrity while also playing up familiar tropes about his online supporters. In that regard, it did not disappoint—it was quickly picked up and regurgitated by multiple outlets, including The Washington Post and USA Today.
But there was a problem with Dovere’s bombshell: It wasn’t supported by any real evidence.
The story hinged on an unverifiable quote which the speaker claims was misrepresented, along with innuendo stemming from the fact that Sirota deleted thousands of tweets following his employment. Paste spoke to multiple campaign insiders familiar with the matter, all of whom disputed Dovere’s timeline and narrative. Their accounts lined up with what we found through our own reporting on unrelated matters over the last few months. Other individuals have also come forward to publicly refute the article’s claims.
The narrative pushed by Dovere that Sirota was Sanders’ pitbull, rather than the muckraking investigative journalist he’s been for years, actually began back in December after he’d tweeted a screenshot from the Center for Responsive Politics showing that Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke was a top recipient of fossil fuel industry cash during the 2018 cycle. Democratic Party operatives and establishment media allies, who saw O’Rourke as a potential 2020 contender, spent weeks in a dog pile, accusing Sirota of journalistic malpractice on the grounds that the figure represented contributions from individuals working in the industry. Even after a subsequent investigation by Sludge revealed that the Texas Democrat had, in fact, received large donations from fossil fuel executives—which prompted his removal from the ‘No Fossil Fuel Money’ pledge he’d signed onto earlier in the cycle—Sirota was damaged.
At the time, Dovere had taken aim at Sirota, tweeting, “Twitter is a place where a wildly disproportionate number of people know who David Sirota is, and will spend the night before Christmas Eve arguing about something trolly he wrote.” Unsurprisingly, this is the incident upon which Dovere rests his case.
“And then there’s O’Rourke,” he writes. “Sirota went after the former Texas congressman’s campaign-finance and voting records. He then turned those into an op-ed on Dec. 20 in The Guardian, writing that “a new analysis of congressional votes from the non-profit news organisation Capital & Main shows that even as O’Rourke represented one of the most solidly Democratic congressional districts in the United States, he has frequently voted against the majority of House Democrats in support of Republican bills and Trump administration priorities.”
But while Dovere’s 1600+ word piece spills plenty of ink documenting Sirota’s past takedowns of centrist Democratic candidates, and pointing out that Sirota deleted nearly 20,000 tweets, it offers no evidence for its central claim that the journalist was secretly acting as an operative. That narrative is predicated entirely on an untranscribed statement from Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir, who claims to have been misrepresented.
“Faiz Shakir, Sanders’s campaign manager, confirmed in an interview on Tuesday afternoon that Sirota had been in an advisory role prior to his hiring on March 11,” Dovere writes. “‘He was advising beforehand,’ Shakir said, explaining that Sirota’s informal work for Sanders goes back months, and was meant to be a trial period to see how the senator, who famously likes to write every word that he says himself, would work with a speechwriter.”
Shakir told Paste he was surprised at Dovere’s account of their conversation and noted that he’d subsequently reached out to the Atlantic writer to correct the record, but was rebuffed.
“I reached out to [Dovere] and said ‘it wasn’t months; at most, it was a month,’” Shakir explained over the phone. “And so, I sent him the dates and from what I understand, he thinks he’s got a different source that tracks it differently.”
Dovere did not respond to our multiple requests for comment, but his article fails to credit any source besides Shakir. Asked what he thought about the fact that no direct quote was used to make such a claim, Shakir replied, “There’s no quote in there because I never said that…Feb. 20 is when you probably start the clock on [Sirota] starting to do some work [for the campaign].”
Another Sanders ally, former campaign manager Jeff Weaver, told Paste that Sirota was not involved with the Sanders team in December. “I can confirm with you that Sirota was doing no work for the campaign of any kind—formal or informal—at any time in 2018,” he said.
In fact, there wasn’t a campaign to work for until February for the simple reason that it was unclear whether Sanders was going to enter the primary. Multiple campaign insiders confirmed to Paste that Sanders was very much on the fence about running and only made up his mind in the middle of February. This claim is consistent with what his now-campaign co-chair Ro Khanna told Paste in late January during an interview for another story on the Yemen war powers resolution on which he had been coordinating with the Vermont senator. Khanna, who had been coordinating with Sanders on the measure, told us he was unsure if any run would happen. On several previous occasions, he’d given us the same answer with varying degrees of optimism.
Danny Feingold, publisher of Capital & Main, would not comment on the accuracy of Dovere’s article, telling the Washington Post that he had become aware of Sirota’s interest in working for the Sanders campaign in mid-February. “When we became aware of Mr. Sirota’s interest in working for Mr. Sanders,” Feingold said, “he wrote no further stories for us.”
Dovere’s piece drew sharp backlash from Guardian editor John Mulholland, who blasted it on Twitter as “totally untrue,” noting that “once David was approached by Sanders he wrote nothing else for us.” A few minutes later, Mulholland followed up with,”If @isaacdovere had contacted us before publication we could have corrected the reporting error in advance. David’s last piece for us was end of December. The first contact he had from Sanders was mid January.”
Seeing Mulholland’s tweets, Dovere accused The Guardian of uncritically taking Sirota’s word and that of the Sanders campaign, suggesting that he had spoken with other sources which were—notably—not included in his article.
“The Guardian would seem to be basing this on assurances from Sirota and the Sanders campaign about when Sirota was working for Sanders, which neither disclosed until today as having happened, and which conflict with accounts of people who were familiar with the contact,” he tweeted.
The Atlantic then issued the following confounding update reiterating Dovere’s position but failing to add new context to the story:
On Wednesday, a spokeswoman for The Guardian, Deepal Patadia, said that Sirota informed the newspaper that he was in conversations with the Sanders team starting in January, and did not file a column forward from that point. Patadia did not address if this account was based on anything other than Sirota’s characterizations, and whether The Guardian was aware of conversations that Sirota was having with Sanders aides through 2018, as people with direct knowledge say he was. Sirota himself would not address this on the record.
Of course, setting aside what appears to be clear goalpost shifting, the idea that Sirota, a journalist who has personally known Sanders for decades, would have had unspecified conversations—even political conversations—with his aides is hardly surprising or damning. Indeed, it is a common industry practice. And while there may have been a period in February during which Sirota could have been more transparent about considering a job with a presidential campaign, his infraction is surely far less serious than Dovere’s apparent attempt to make facts fit a fundamentally flawed narrative—even as it becomes increasingly clear that they do not.
As to Sirota’s political leanings, all journalists have ideological biases and preferences that inform their work—one can only speculate at Dovere’s. That alone is not an ethical violation.