Media critic

Like many in today’s media-politics universe, David Sirota has an email list to which he blasts his latest accomplishments. Sometimes he signs off with a little flourish: “Rock the boat, David.”

Way to heed your own advice, Mr. Sirota. This week, he announced to his email friends that he had accepted a job as senior adviser and speechwriter for the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). But that’s not all Sirota did. He also erased an extensive Twitter archive in which he has done short-form combat with all kinds of folks who differed from his specific view of American politics: A far-left one, that is. “When Bernie asked me to join his campaign, I felt I could not turn that request down, because I genuinely believe that the future of our country, our planet and our children are at stake in this election,” wrote Sirota, who also noted that the “new job was not something I expected or planned for — but it is something I am excited to do.”

Not expected? asked Edward-Isaac Dovere of the Atlantic. On the contrary, wrote Dovere, Sirota for some time had been ramping up to his role with the Sanders campaign. From his story under the headline, “Bernie Sanders Just Hired His Twitter Attack Dog”:

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. He centered many of his attacks on Beto O’Rourke, but he also bashed Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Joe Biden, Kirsten Gillibrand, Michael Bennet, John Hickenlooper, Mike Bloomberg, and even Andrew Cuomo.

Some background here: Sirota worked two decades ago for Sanders when the Vermont independent was serving in the House of Representatives — a “formative experience,” Sirota said in a recent email blast. Other political gigs — campaign aide to former Montana governor Brian Schweitzer (D),and a stint at the Center for American Progress, for instance — filled the years before he became a full-time journalist in 2006. As the bio page on his website explains, he has been a television commentator, an “award-winning radio host," a “bestselling author” and a reporter with bylines in the New York Times Magazine, Politico Magazine, Harper’s, Wired, Vice, the Nation and Salon.com. He has done investigative work for Newsweek/IBT and Capital & Main, and wrote a monthly column for the Guardian.

No bio of Sirota would be complete, however, without mention of his pugilistic ways on Twitter, where he has 129,000 followers. Just how he cultivated such an audience, however, is difficult to excavate at this point because Sirota deleted more than 20,000 tweets after Dovere sent a list of questions to him regarding his transition from journalism to hired political work. The move annoyed people who have had social media engagements with the Sanders devotee:

Actually, it’s not too clear exactly how and when Sirota transitioned from being a journalist to a Sanders campaign aide. We requested an interview with Sirota about the timeline, though he asked that the discussion be off the record. The call ended quite promptly after the Erik Wemple Blog insisted that the whole discussion occur on the record. There is nothing so sensitive about this ruckus that cannot be discussed in the cheery light of day.

In any case, the Guardian US has asked the Atlantic to correct Dovere’s claim that Sirota’s work for the publication overlapped with his “work” for Sanders. “David Sirota’s work last appeared in Guardian US at the end of December 2018. Once David Sirota was approached by Sanders’ team, he stopped writing for Guardian US. We hope The Atlantic will correct the story,” reads a statement from a Guardian News & Media spokesperson. John Mulholland, the editor of Guardian US, told the Erik Wemple Blog that there was a strict separation between these two worlds: “David was not doing anything formally or informally for Sanders while he was writing for us,” wrote Mulholland, who also tweeted:

Sirota’s contributions for the Guardian US petered out in December 2018, when he wrote a piece blasting former representative Beto O’Rourke’s voting record while in the House, saying the Texan “voted for GOP bills that his fellow Democratic lawmakers said reinforced Republicans’ anti-tax ideology, chipped away at the Affordable Care Act (ACA), weakened Wall Street regulations, boosted the fossil fuel industry and bolstered Donald Trump’s immigration policy.”

In response to the objections from the Guardian, Dovere updated his Atlantic story to add this paragraph:

There’s an important distinction at play here. Whereas, Dovere’s original reporting suggests that Sirota’s “work with Sanders” overlapped with his contributions to the Guardian, his update falls back to a less troublesome circumstance — namely, that Sirota allegedly had “conversations” with Sanders aides during this period. “Conversations” trigger a different ethical standard than does “work.”

On Thursday morning, Mulholland told the Erik Wemple Blog that he’d written to Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor in chief of the Atlantic, seeking a correction.

Capital & Main, the nonprofit, California-based news outlet that published investigative work by Sirota, tells the Erik Wemple Blog in a statement: “In a story on [the Atlantic’s website] it was reported that former Capital & Main staff writer David Sirota was advising Bernie Sanders for several months before leaving Capital & Main. Without commenting on the accuracy of that report, Capital & Main wishes to be clear that we didn’t know that Mr. Sirota was engaged in any activity that aided Mr. Sanders. When we became aware of Mr. Sirota’s interest in working for Mr. Sanders, he wrote no further stories for us.” Danny Feingold, the publisher of Capital & Main, tells us that Sirota disclosed his “interest in working for the Sanders campaign” during the second week of February. “At this point, we have no knowledge of Mr. Sirota doing work for Mr. Sanders in the months preceding February but are continuing to investigate,” notes Feingold.

The Sirota episode is something greater than just another Twitter spat. It’s a reminder of the intimacies involved in journalism. 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 Isgur, Jay Carney, Linda Douglass, Tony Snow, just to name a few.

Aside from the alleged overlap, what sets Sirota apart is his bellicosity — on Twitter and elsewhere. As Dovere reported, Sirota went after not only O’Rourke but also Sens. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), Cory Booker (N.J.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and others vying with Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination. Dovere:

When people have questioned his tactics, Sirota has called them “mentally incapacitated.” Responding in mid-January to those who criticized him online for preemptively railing against the record of O’Rourke, who had not yet entered the race but had been a huge source of concern for Sanders allies since talk of O’Rourke’s potential presidential run picked up last year, Sirota tweeted, “The screaming temper tantrums by Democratic Party operatives whenever reporters scrutinize a lawmaker’s voting record is something to behold. These people quite literally hate democracy.”

At another point, he said his critics “are deranged and/or running a deliberate [disinformation] campaign.” “Positively unhinged,” he wrote about them a separate time.

One Twitter user wrote that Sirota “angrily smeared anyone who accused him of being in the tank for Sanders, which makes him a liar . . .”

A fuller evaluation of these various claims would be much easier if Sirota hadn’t deleted nearly his entire Twitter archive. In a response to the Atlantic, he mentioned an "autodeleter that periodically and automatically deletes tweets. I started doing this many months ago.” That move, combined with Sirota’s commitment to off-the-record discussions of his recent activities, places him on the tenebrous extreme of the transparency spectrum.

And it’s there that this story now rests. We now have a Twitter cleanser serving as a senior adviser and speechwriter for the Sanders campaign. The stage is thus set for some delicious commentary when the senator’s campaign inevitably demands accountability and transparency from some organization or other.

Attempts to secure comment from the Sanders campaign have come to naught.

Read more:

Helaine Olen: Bernie Sanders says it’s better to give birth in Finland than the U.S. He’s right.

Jennifer Rubin: Bernie is being Bernie, and plenty of Democrats don’t like it

David Von Drehle: Democrats have to decide what to do with the two old men

Paul Heintz: I’ve reported on Bernie Sanders for years. A free press won’t give him what he wants.