The Crux of the Accusations Against David Sirota From the Atlantic’s Edward-Isaac Dovere is False

Nobody should want a media environment where distortions and fabrications of the type the Atlantic just published can thrive.

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 16, 2018: A rack of magazines, including The Atlantic, on display in a bookstore in San Francisco, California. The Atlantic cover story promo asks 'Is Democracy Dying?' In 2017, billionaire investor and philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Steve Jobs,  acquired majority ownership of the magazine. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)

A rack of magazines, including The Atlantic, on display in a bookstore in San Francisco.

Photo: Robert Alexander/Getty Images

The Atlantic on Tuesday published a sensationalistic series of accusations by reporter Edward-Isaac Dovere aimed at long-time journalist David Sirota, whose hiring by the Sanders 2020 presidential campaign as a speechwriter and adviser had just been announced earlier that day. The Atlantic article predictably and quickly went viral, cited by major media outlets and Democratic Party operatives as proof that Sirota had acted unethically by critically reporting on rival presidential candidates in the prior months while dishonestly concealing his work as an operative or adviser for the Sanders campaign.

In his viral tweet promoting what he hyped as his “SCOOP,” Dovere was even more explicitly accusatory, claiming that “Sirota, just hired as Bernie Sanders’ speechwriter and senior adviser, has been quietly writing speeches and advising him for months without disclosing it but while bashing pretty much every candidate in the field.”

As it turns out, there are indeed serious breaches of journalistic ethics from this episode, but they are ones committed by the Atlantic and Dovere, not by Sirota. That’s because the core accusation of the Atlantic article – that Sirota “for months” had been “informally” advising the Sanders campaign as a speechwriter while pretending to be an independent reporter attacking Sanders’ opponents – is simply false. It relies on a timeline that simply never happened.

Since publication of Dovere’s bombshell, the Atlantic has tweaked and edited the story to reflect the multiple errors and denials that make it appear as though the original version contained those edits. The article at first added what it called an “update” reflecting the Guardian’s vehement denial that Sirota, who had been working as a columnist for the paper as well as an investigative reporter for Capital & Main, had performed any work for the Sanders campaign, “informal” or otherwise, while publishing articles at the Guardian: a central claim of the Atlantic story. It now simply includes that denial with no indication that it was added after the fact: 

But the various edits and “updates” made by the Atlantic after publication do not begin to reflect what a journalistic debacle this article was. Most critically, the key claim that made the article such a sensation – that Sirota’s “informal work for Sanders goes back months” and included “quietly writing speeches” for the Senator – is entirely and demonstrably false.

That timeline was so central to the story’s significance because it was Sirota’s investigation in December of Beto O’Rourke’s voting record, donors and funding sources which caused sustained anger and controversy toward Sirota. Sirota’s first published his research about O’Rourke’s receipt of donations on Twitter in early December, and then his analysis of O’Rourke’s voting record was detailed in a widely discussed story that was published by the Guardian on December 20, which fuelled the anger and accusations from Democratic centrists even further against Sirota.

Had it been true, as the Atlantic article claimed, that Sirota’s “informal work for Sanders goes back months,” it would have meant that Sirota was investigating and reporting on O’Rourke while masquerading as a journalist but in reality working as a concealed Sanders operative: a charge that many establishment Democrats voiced at the time but which Sirota vehemently and aggressively denied.

So the Atlantic’s article made it seem not only that the Sanders campaign was behind Sirota’s investigative reporting about O’Rourke, but worse, that Sirota outright lied by denying those accusations at the time. The use of the Atlantic’s article to claim vindication by the enemies of Sirota, and especially the enemies of Sanders, was so intense and widespread that Sirota’s name trended on Twitter for much of the day on Tuesday.

But after the festival of self-proclaimed vindication reached its peak, the Atlantic’s story quickly began to unravel. The Guardian issued a categorical, public denial, which forced the Atlantic to revise its story.

Worse still, the Guardian editor, John Mulholland, noted that the Atlantic had inexcusably failed even to request comment from the Guardian before publishing its extraordinary accusations, posting this statement to Twitter: “if Isaac Dovere had contacted us before publication, we could have corrected the reporting error in advance. Last piece by David Sirota for us: end of December. First discussion with Sanders was in mid January.” The Guardian has since written a formal demand for corrections to the Atlantic’s editor, Jeffrey Goldberg.

Beyond all that, even more crucial facts have now emerged proving that the Atlantic’s article was false in almost every material respect.

Sanders’ long-time senior aide Jeff Weaver, to whom the Atlantic had not spoken prior to publication, adamantly denied to the Intercept that the Atlantic’s reporting was accurate. “I can say that David Sirota was not working for the campaign, including speechwriting, either formally or informally in 2018,” Weaver said.

The only named source cited by Dovere in support of his key accusation is a purported claim from Faiz Shakir, who only joined the Sanders campaign as its campaign manager weeks ago, which means he would not have been present during the time Dovere tried to deceive readers into believing that Sirota was “informally” working for the Sanders campaign.

Dovere used deceitful sleight-of-hand tactics to create a false appearance that Shakir was confirming the Atlantic’s most inflammatory accusation, writing that Shakir “confirmed in an interview on Tuesday afternoon that Sirota had been in an advisory role prior to his hiring on March 11.” It’s true, as Shakir was quoted as saying, that Sirota’s informal role for the campaign began prior to March 11. It began on February 20: after he stopped writing articles.

But in the very next sentence, Dovere tried to imply that Shakir was confirming something that he plainly was not confirming and could not confirm, because it was false: namely, “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” (emphasis added).

In a timeline provided to the Intercept, Shakir made clear that Dovere’s key claim, attributed to him by the Atlantic without quotations, was simply false. “Sirota begins informally advising the campaign” only on February 20, Shakir said — six days after Sirota resigned his position with Capital & Main, and two full months after publication of Sirota’s Guardian article on O’Rourke. Shakir added that it was not until March 11 that Sirota signed his offer letter to formally become Sanders’ speechwriter.

Even more incriminating for Dovere is that Shakir – Dovere’s only named source for his key accusation – immediately communicated to the Atlantic reporter that he had attributed to Shakir claims he did not say or believe, and quickly asked for a correction. “I reached out to [Dovere] and said ‘it wasn’t months; at most, it was a month,'” Shakir told Paste Magazine today. But Dovere ignored him.

Think about what that shows about the motives and integrity of this Atlantic article and its reporter: Dovere ignored his only named source telling him shortly after publication that his core accusation, misattributed to Shakir, was false, but the Atlantic and Dovere nonetheless continued to aggressively spread it, reaping the rewards they sought of traffic, social media virality, and injury to Sirota and Sanders’ reputations. 

The real timeline, by itself, obliterates the crux of the Atlantic’s accusation against Sirota: that he concealed his role with the Sanders campaign while reporting on other candidates. Aside from the fact that no such campaign existed – Sanders spent much of December and even January expressing serious uncertainty about whether he would run – Sirota played no role of any kind, let alone acted as informal speechwriter, until February 20, when his “informal” adviser role began.

Along with Weaver and Shakir, Sirota similarly insisted to the Intercept that he had no involvement with the Sanders campaign of any kind throughout all of 2018. “During 2018, I never once drafted a speech for Bernie, looked at or offered advice on a speech for Bernie, or talked in any way about any work in any capacity with the campaign.”

Numerous questions sent early Thursday morning by the Intercept to Dovere regarding what basis he had for claiming that Sirota had been working informally for the Sanders campaigns “for months” – the crux of the story – have gone ignored.

Unless one believes that Weaver, Shakir, Sirota, and the Guardian are all jointly and blatantly lying – by vehemently denying that Sirota was performing work of any kind, “informal or otherwise,” for the Sanders campaign in 2018 – then the Atlantic’s entire story falls apart.

That Sirota is generally supportive of Sanders’ ideology and knows the Senator personally is hardly a secret. Sirota is quite open about that, and explicitly reminded everyone during the fallout from his O’Rourke reporting that he worked for Sanders 20 years ago. Sanders endorsed the successful 2018 candidacy of Sirota’s wife, Emily, for a seat in the Colorado State House against an establishment Democratic opponent.

So it’s hardly hidden that Sirota is generally supportive of Sanders’ left-wing ideology, has a long-standing personal relationship with him, and periodically chats with him, as many reporters do with many politicians and candidates they cover. But the only claim that made the Atlantic story notable at all – that Sirota worked for months informally advising the Sanders campaign and drafting his speeches with an explicit eye toward a permanent speechwriter position – is a complete falsehood.

As the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple noted, it is, for better or worse, common and considered proper for journalists and politicians to develop conversational relationships and even friendly ones. What transformed the Atlantic’s article into something newsworthy was that it attempted to scandalize normal discussions between journalists and politicians by describing the ones Sirota had with Sanders as having gone far beyond that – not conversations between a reporter and a politician but an actual working relationship between the journalist and the campaign – and it invented outright falsehoods to achieve that goal. As Wemple wrote:

In a clean world, political journalists would remain political journalists and political aides would remain political aides. In our actual, messy world, politics and the media are like adjacent townhouses separated by quarter-inch drywall.  Kick through a panel or two, and you’re on the other side. The crossover happens all the time: Sarah IsgurJay CarneyLinda DouglassTony Snow, just to name a few.

In fact, the only conversations Sirota had with Sanders after the 2018 midterm election, Sirota told the Intercept, was a brief exchange of pleasantries at a public conference of progressives he attended along with numerous other journalists in December, as well as a phone call Sirota had with Sanders after the O’Rourke article was published in which Sirota asked whether Sanders had made a decision to run for president, and was told no decision had yet been made. Beyond that, Sirota said a movement to “Recruit Bernie” formed in late 2018 by former Sanders staffer Rich Pelletier that included him along with others on an email list, but Sirota ultimately communicated that he would not be a part of that group.

But it is not merely the Atlantic’s lack of evidence for its core claim, the obvious errors in its article, the Guardian’s public denials and demands for a correction, the ongoing tweaking of its storyline, or the vehement denials of multiple people that call into serious question the Atlantic’s core claims. Documentary evidence does the same.

A January 25 email from Sirota to his Guardian editors shared with the Intercept contains notification from Sirota that he was going to have a conversation to determine if Sanders was going to run for president, and that he was considering leaving journalism.

So as of January 25, Sirota was unsure whether Sanders even intended to run at all, let alone whether he would have any sort of role in the Sanders campaign. But he was clearly aware of, and concerned about, the journalistic necessity not to publish articles while he was considering that possibility – to the point where he stopped writing for the Guardian long before he began any “informal” advising role (which started only on February 20, according to Shakir), let alone before he accepted a job with the campaign (March 11). If anything, Sirota was erring on the side of excessive caution by suspending his publication of columns without having any role of any kind – formal or informal – with a campaign that Sirota did not even know would eventually launch.

The same is true of Sirota’s work with Capital & Main. As Sirota’s informal advising to the campaign began on February 20, he advised his editor that he would be resigning his position in contemplation of that possibility. Capital and Main’s editor told the Washington Post that “Sirota told him during the second week of February that he was interested in working for the Sanders campaign” and therefore “would no longer write for the publication pending a final decision.”

Capital & Main did end up publishing an interview Sirota conducted with New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio on February 19, but Sirota had conducted that interview weeks earlier. One could reasonably argue that the DeBlasio interview should have included a disclosure that Sirota, days earlier, had begun informally advising the Sanders campaign, but that would amount to, at worst, a trivial disclosure oversight. It goes without saying that if this trivial omission on this one Capital & Main interview with Mayor DeBlasio in late February were the only valid transgression the Atlantic had to report – and it was – no article would have been published, let alone one that was hyped as some sort of major revelation designed to assassinate Sirota’s reputation and injure the Sanders campaign.

There was one fact and one fact only that made the Atlantic article so seemingly damaging: that Sirota was operating with an explicit agreement as an informal adviser and speechwriter during his controversial investigative reporting about O’Rourke and others in December and January. And that claim is manifestly false.

It’s hard to overstate how many other media outlets uncritically repeated the Atlantic’s false timeline with no attempt made to verify whether it was true.

The headline on the Washington Post’s news article this week by media reporter Paul Farhi illustrates how much blind faith was placed in the Atlantic’s claims, and how much damage it did to Sirota’s reputation: “A journalist (and Bernie Sanders supporter) had a relationship he kept from his readers.”

Citing the numerous criticisms Sirota has voiced of various establishment Democratic candidates, the Post article declared that “what Sirota, who wrote for a variety of publications, didn’t reveal was where he was coming from: essentially, from inside Sanders’s campaign.” Explicitly accusing Sirota of ethical violations, based entirely on the Atlantic’s unsupported and false claims, the Post article decreed: “A reporter’s undisclosed connection to a political candidate would constitute a breach of journalistic ethics,”

In a separate Washington Post column, this one by that paper’s Democratic neocon columnist Jennifer Rubin, even more extreme denunciations of Sirota appeared: “such deception is inexcusable,” Rubin thundered. After providing a shield of anonymity to multiple cowardly Washington operatives to heap all kinds of insults on Sirota’s character – a use of anonymity by Rubin that is itself dubious journalistic ethics, to put it generously – Rubin declared that all of this demonstrates that a Sanders presidency would be similar to Trump’s: “Rather than condemn Trump’s tactics and appeal to voters’ desire for something better, more high-minded, Sanders suggests through this hire that his operation will be just as mean-spirited as the current White House’s.”

USAToday – while at least displaying the journalistic integrity to note that the Sanders campaign denies the Atlantic’s report – nonetheless repeated the central accusation in its first paragraph: “Sen. Bernie Sanders’ latest addition to his 2020 presidential campaign is drawing criticism after a report alleged the new staffer, an investigative reporter, had been for months secretly advising the campaign while bashing other Democrats running for the White House” (emphasis added).

So we have a major media storyline, an attempt to destroy a journalist’s reputation, and an attack on the Sanders campaign, all based on a false timeline that the Atlantic baselessly affirmed. The actual timeline not only guts the Atlantic’s core claims but proves that the unethical journalistic behavior here was committed by Dovere and the Atlantic.

Indeed, Dovere’s unethical conduct on this story extends beyond the core false claims in his article. In responding to the controversy over his article on Twitter, Dovere attempted to prove that Sirota was making claims about rival presidential candidates during the time he was working with the Sanders campaign, but – by this point likely knowing that his timeline was wrong – he posted Sirota’s allegedly unethical tweets only without the dates on those tweets – so that nobody would realize that the tweets from Sirota that he was citing were ones posted before Sirota’s work began with the campaign, not after.

In lieu of convincing evidence to support his central claim, Dovere used all sorts of slimy insinuation to imply that Sirota was guilty of wrongdoing. He focused on the fact that Sirota had deleted roughly 20,000 tweets upon being hired by the Sanders campaign. But with journalists like Dovere so clearly devoted to smearing the reputations of anyone associated with the Sanders campaign using these sorts of manipulative tactics, is it any wonder that Sirota would view regular tweet deletions as a prudent course of action?

Contrary to Dovere’s attempts to make Sirota’s tweet deletions appear sinister and abnormal, they are actually a normal practice for many journalists. Vox’s Matt Yglesias, for instance, uses Twitter very prolifically, yet regularly and quite frequently deletes all of his tweets, ensuring that only the last few weeks of his pronouncements are available at any time. When MSNBC’s Joy Reid was revealed to have a long history of ugly anti-gay bigotry, she not only deleted tweets but also deleted her entire website, and then manufactured a lie that a hacker, rather than she herself, had authored them and that the FBI was searching for the hacker she invented (rather than being fired by MSNBC for lying to the public about a fake hacker and apparently to the FBI, she was praised for her ethics and courage by key MSNBC star Rachel Maddow).

Last year, I deleted roughly 27,000 old tweets – purposely choosing only ones that pre-dated the 2016 election (in a futile attempt to avoid deranged conspiracy theories that the deletions were designed to evade Robert Mueller’s scrutiny) – due to how easy it is to distort the meaning of particularly old tweets by removing them from their context (something that temporarily got Sam Seder fired by MSNBC until executives finally realized that they had mis-read the old tweet that caused his firing).

Indeed, to understand the justifiability and wisdom of deleting old tweets, consider what Vox writer Aaron Rupar did this week to Briahna Joy Gray when it was announced that Gray was leaving the Intercept to become the Press Secretary for Sanders’ campaigns (that happened on the same day Dovere smeared Sirota). Rupar spent that day digging through Gray’s old tweets to find anything incriminating that he could get his hands on in order to ruin her reputation before she even started her job as Sanders’ Press Secretary.

Rupar’s most viral, damaging tweet about Gray ended up being an outright falsehood: that Gray, during the 2016 election, had endorsed the theory that the DNC hack was really an “insider job.” Although Rupar, in the face of mass outrage, later admitted that his accusation about Gray’s views was false – Gray never embraced any such theory – his retraction received a tiny amount of attention and re-tweets compared to the original, viral untruth he posted. So the damage to Gray’s reputation was done, as intended – all because this anti-Sanders Vox writer wildly distorted one of her old tweets by tearing it out of its context:

Under those circumstances, it shouldn’t be hard to understand why people joining the Sanders campaign – in an environment filled with unethical journalists with extreme anti-Sanders animus such as Dovere and Rupar – would want to delete their old tweets to prevent distortions of this type. Whatever else is true, tweet deletions are certainly not evidence of any wrongdoing by Sirota. (On Friday night, Dovere, now clearly researching Sirota, published another attack, this one about a 20-year controversy involving Sirota’s use of campaign tactics as a junior campaign operative in the 1999 mayoral race in Philadelphia that Sirota himself has described as wrong and for which he has repeatedly apologized).

No matter one’s ideological leanings or candidate preferences, nobody should want a media environment where distortions and falsehoods of the type the Atlantic just published can thrive. The Atlantic’s core claim – that Sirota has spent the last several months informally working for the Sanders campaign as an adviser and speechwriter – is clearly false. That magazine should have the integrity to admit this, retract the story, and apologize to Sirota and to its readers that it misled.

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