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The Factual Reporting About Beto by David Sirota That Stirred Epic Freakout

"I was portrayed as some sort of horrible villain dividing the Democratic Party for one tweet that said, 'I didn't know this...' And it became this huge controversy and people are freaking out."

Journalist David Sirota "reportedly" started a war by writing a piece of journalism based on a congressman's voting record and a single tweet based on some campaign finance data he found surprising. 

In recent weeks, investigative journalist David Sirota made the repeated fatal error of doing his job. He reported facts, as his wont, and the corporate media and political elites flipped out, as is their wont.

Earlier this week, he linked to another investigative journalist's tweet which accurately described what Biden said in a 2018 video—that he would support a means test for Social Security. In response, The Daily Banter—a website which smears anyone to the Left of the DNC, portrays harassers as victims and has a white male staff writer who lectures Nina Turner about her "ancestors" and African American history because he went to a civil rights museum once—posted a story with the expected regurgitation of a talking point used by conservatives or centrists pretending to have progressive politics: 'Universal programs, you see, are bad, you see, because they benefit the super wealthy, you see, who don't deserve the help.' This hot take ignores history and common sense. Universal programs are less stigmatized and less likely to be cut when they apply to everyone. There's a reason why the politically savvy Bill Clinton went after Welfare and not Social Security.

The attack on Sirota over Biden is just beginning but it's the latest iteration of smearing investigative journalists for reporting inconvenient truths. Last month, when David Sirota tweeted out a simple fact about a segment of Beto O'Rourke's donors, he was accused of launching a "seriously" dangerous war on behalf of Trump. "Oh look," tweeted Neera Tanden, the president and CEO of the liberal(ish) think tank Center for American Progress and a close ally of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.  "A supporter of Bernie Sanders attacking a Democrat. This is seriously dangerous. We know Trump is in the White House and attacking Dems is doing Trump's bidding. I hope Senator Sanders repudiates these attacks in 2019." 

As is often the case, the smear began with a blatant distortion covered in a mantle of  self-righteous moralism. Why is it risky for a journalist—who writes regularly about campaign finance and the interactions between corporations and politics—to point out that the former Democratic Congressman was "the #2 recipient of oil/gas industry campaign cash in the entire Congress."  How is stating a fact "doing Trump' s bidding"? Why would Sanders need to condemn a journalist for reporting the truth? 

Tanden is known for her compulsive tweeting. The frequency, veracity, and nocturnal nature of her tweets resemble those of another CEO and president, but she was nothing if not on-brand in her response to Sirota.  A few days later, when journalist and Texas native Elizabeth Bruenig wrote an op-ed titled, “Why this progressive Texan can’t get excited about Beto O’Rourke,” Tanden put together three critical yet fair columns—plus one factual tweet—and got: conspiracy!

She took to Twitter, as is her wont, and alleged, "Bruenig's piece in the Post on Beto is just the latest attack by a supporter of Senator Sanders on Beto: joining Jilani, Jacobin and Sirota. Feels a bit orchestrated and clearly they are worried." As a point of comparison, during the 2016 primary The Washington Post famously ran 16 negative pieces on Bernie Sanders in 16 hours. That feels slightly more orchestrated than a few negative articles and tweets about a congressman who has been in the headlines as a potential presidential candidate.

Several other pundits and journalists—even television writer David Simon, creator of The Wire—echoed Tanden's bizarre framing, describing Sirota's tweet as the start of a war on Beto and proof of an alleged coordinated smear campaign that could be traced back to Bernie Sanders.  "Inside Bernie-world's war on Beto O'Rourke," reported NBC. "Democrats trying to annihilate an O'Rourke Campaign," Vanity Fair cried. Channeling his inner Borat, columnist Jonathan Chait wrote, “"Why the Bernie Movement Must Crush Beto O'Rourke," at New York Magazine.  Meanwhile, Charles Pierce at Esquire fretted over "a concerted effort from the Bernie Sanders camp to paint O'Rourke as a tool of the oil and gas industry." The Hill, no stranger to smear campaigns they usually aim at Sanders, reported that "Sanders supporters deny coordinated attacks on O'Rourke's progressive credentials."

The attacks on Sirota and his alleged co-conspirators sparked the curiosity of another investigative reporter, Alex Kotch of Sludge. Kotch looked into the story and discovered that Beto had signed a "no fossil fuel money pledge," which states "a politician and their campaign will adopt a policy to not knowingly accept any contributions over $200" from not only PACs, but also from "executives, or front groups of fossil fuel companies—companies whose primary business is the extraction, processing, distribution, or sale of oil, gas, or coal." O'Rourke had violated the pledge he signed. As a result of the discovery, his name was removed from the pledge website.

Meanwhile, Sirota continued with his own work as an investigative reporter, and looked into Beto's voting record. And what he discovered was even worse: on 167 votes, O'Rourke had broken with the majority of his fellow Democrats and supported the Republican agenda not just with regard to fossil fuel (he voted against limiting offshore drilling), but with regard to healthcare (which he voted to chip away at); bank regulation (which he voted to weaken); Trump's tax scams (one of which he voted for); the death penalty (which he voted to apply to attempts to murder a law enforcement officer);  and even immigration (when he voted to decrease screening and background checks of Customs and Border Protection agents and applicants).

In order to get to the bottom of this intrigue for my podcast, The Katie Halper Show, I spoke to David Sirota, the man who wrote the little tweet that started this great war.

You can listen to the full exchange below or read a partial transcript, edited for concision and clarity, that follows.

To hear my bonus chat with Sirota about how Tanden, Obama and the Center for America Progress opposed Beto's votes, become a Patreon subscriber.

Katie Halper Show (KH): You're being presented as attacking the Democrats, and Beto O’Rourke in particular. But you won an award for your reporting on the Republican tax bill, known as "The Corker Kickback."

David Sirota (DS):  It's so strange to me. I do reporting on politicians' voting records and where they get their money from, particularly Republicans. And sometimes I look at Democrats. This all started with a tweet. So, it's a Sunday and I'm working on a completely separate story about the fossil fuel industry and how it throws money to all different kinds of candidates and I came up on the Center for Responsive Politics' website. Now, anybody who's a reporter in Washington or who follows the money knows that the Center for Responsive Politics is literally the gold standard of campaign finance data because they do a good job of aggregating the data by industry. And I noticed that Beto O'Rourke was the number two recipient of money from donors in the oil and gas industry, donors above $200. And I tweeted out a very innocuous tweet that said, "Something I didn’t know: Beto O’Rourke is the #2 recipient of oil/gas industry campaign cash in the entire Congress." That's it. I didn't make a follow up comment. I didn't say, "He's an oil shill!" I just thought it was notable in the era of climate change when there are people pushing politicians to take absolutely no money from the fossil fuel industry. That tweet sits out there for two days. Nobody cared about it. It wasn't that interesting.

Then suddenly Neera Tanden tweets it out saying, Oh look. Here's a Democrat attacking another Democrat. Essentially saying this is bad and this is dishonest because the money came from individuals and it didn't come from PACs because Beto has sworn off PAC money. It's definitely true that that money is not PAC money. I didn't say it was PAC money. There is, though, a push by various environmental groups to ask politicians not to take any money from not only PACs in the oil and gas industry, but also executives in the oil and gas industry.

I was portrayed as some sort of horrible villain dividing the Democratic party for tweeting one tweet that said, "I didn't know this..." And it became this huge controversy and people are freaking out and David Simon, the creator of The Wire, was tweeting literally non-stop for days about this tweet. I don't really understand that but the point is there was an epic freak out.

Full disclosure because people have made an issue of this. Even though it's right on my biography on my website. I worked for Bernie Sanders 19 years ago as a twenty three year old right out of college. I worked for him for I think it was two years, it might have been a little less than two years and then I worked for house Democrats and then I was the third employee at the Center for American Progress. And I want everybody to keep this in their mind: Yes, I work for Bernie Sanders 19 years ago for roughly two years and I worked after that and for a longer period of time for  the Center for American Progress and for house Democrats.

And then Alex Kotch at Sludge, the investigative reporting outlet, got interested in it so he did a story about it. And actually a not insubstantial amount of this money came in the form of max donations: $2,700 a piece or above $1,000 from top-level people in the oil and gas industry. And what do you know?  Beto O’Rourke signed the no fossil fuel money pledge. And the no fossil fuel money pledge says, "I will not take money from oil and fossil fuel related PACs or Executives in the fossil fuel industry." So Beto O'Rourke broke his no fossil fuel money pledge and was taken off the website of the Pledge.

Now, is that the biggest story in the world? No, it's not the biggest story in the world. Does that mean Beto O'Rourke is automatically a shill for the oil and gas industry? No. That doesn't mean that. Does it mean that it's an important story that a campaign finance reporter should report on?  Yes it does.

So, in the middle of this I started taking a look at O'Rourke's voting record and there was a not insubstantial amount of times that he has cast votes against the majority of his party in the House.

There's been some reporting about Beto voting this percentage of the time with his party or that percentage of the time liberal or conservative. And I think those kinds of metrics, frankly, just on their face are kind of bullshit because it doesn't tell you what the actual votes are. If you're only evaluating somebody [by looking at], where is he on the liberal and conservative scale of his votes, well liberal and conservative are subjective. Or, if you look at how frequently he breaks with his party, that stat unto itself doesn't tell you all that much.

So I looked specifically at the economic policy votes that O'Rourke cast that broke with the majority of house Democrats and what we found was that he frequently voted with Republicans against the majority of his party for bills to deregulate Wall Street. He voted for some bills to chip away at the Affordable Care Act. He voted at one point for a key portion of Donald Trump's deportation force. He co-sponsored a bill to weaken the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's rules of fighting racial discrimination in lending. He supported two Republican bills that President Obama's White House slammed and threatened to veto.  A lot of these votes were not progressive dissents breaking with the party. These votes were not the equivalent of Barbara Lee voting against the Afghanistan war in the minority of her party.

Then we did the granular details of these votes and we included quotes from House Democrats on the floor of the house arguing why these  Republican bills should be voted down, begging lawmakers like Beto O'Rourke to not vote for these Republican bills. On economic issues many of the votes from Beto O'Rourke were Beto O'Rourke voting to help the Republicans pass the Republican economic agenda, and we reported that out.

And it was like I had declared [a war on Beto.] I mean literally NBC News reported it as "this is a quote war on Beto O'Rourke" for a journalist to publish this.

When we presented this report, people said: "This is an attack on Beto, you're attacking him." "This is unfair, you're unfairly maligning him." And I said look, "You could easily look at this record and make the argument that this is a pro-business, pro-corporate moderate Democrat who will appeal to business leaders and affluent voters."

KH: And say that he'll be effective in running against Trump.

DS: Exactly. I don't think that's a particularly good argument but you could make that argument. The point is that if you inherently see somebody's votes and and quotes from the Congressional Record as negative, as an attack, what you are saying is that you think these votes inherently are bad. And if you are saying you think these votes are inherently bad then you are saying that they are inherently newsworthy and you are essentially saying that they are inherently something that voters in a democracy where voters should be informed, voters should know about this.

KH: It's a bit of a "self-own," or self-incriminating when you're very upset that someone you're defending has his or her record discussed. You shouldn't be openly upset about that. This is not a smear. This is a relevant fact. If you're upset at someone for reporting on the facts, you're the one who's actually indicting the person who's being reported on. It's not like they can say you're picking on him because you're interviewing someone who hates him or you're showing that he sent his kids to private school or some personal things that you could politicize. These are just things that everyone is supposed to look at and know about.

DS: I think that's a really excellent point. I hadn't thought of it that way, which is had I gone to El Paso and interviewed everybody who hates Beto O'Rourke and written a story just airing out that kind of, effectively, dirty laundry. I'm not saying people shouldn't do that, but—

KH: But that's a different category.

DS: Right. And I think it really speaks to is something very sad about our politics, which is that there's an authoritarian tendency to our politics. I do think that there are a lot of people out there on both the right and in the Democratic party who just want a coronation. They don't necessarily believe in the basic fundamentals of democracy. One of the basic fundamentals of democracy is that there are contested primaries. Candidates go back and forth and they debate their policies and they debate their records and this is healthy. This is a healthy discourse and I think there are a lot of people who buy into the argument that it would be better if we just appointed two nominees, had the two nominees run against each other, and that would be it. If I have an ideology, I'm ideologically opposed to the idea that we must coronate candidates and just have uncontested elections where we don't debate the issues. I think that they're terrified off scrutiny. They're terrified of what's going to be revealed.

KH: So why are they terrified?

DS: The establishment media and the establishment wing of the Democratic Party is fundamentally threatened by Bernie Sanders' agenda. And I'm being objective. This isn't a value judgment. They don't like his agenda for a couple of reasons. One: his agenda is built on challenging corporate power and wealth, that is corporate power and wealth the establishment media and the establishment wing of the democratic party is built upon. It is their foundation. And there's a second tier of this which is that Bernie Sanders— beyond his ideology—also poses a fundamental threat to the career networks and relationships of people in The Establishment themselves especially within the Democratic Party circles. In other words, if you are at a think tank, let's use Neera Tanden because everybody knows her. I'm not saying this to pick on her, but if your entire career has been built on the Clinton Network—you were Hillary Clinton's top aide, you are at a think tank that is basically funded in part by Clinton-supporting donors—a Bernie Sanders presidency or, by the way, a presidency from somebody similarly outside of that system—doesn't matter that it's Bernie—a presidency like that would basically destroy your relevance and your career because your career is based on leveraging your relationships in the current system as it is now. So Sanders, his ideology threatens them, but also where he exists in politics is a threat to the literal careers and livelihood of people who make their careers and livelihood on the relationships tied to the current establishment of the Democratic Party.

After publishing the straight reported story on the votes, I later did an opinion column, where I said I believe that the Democrats have a very good chance to win in 2020 because Donald Trump is so unpopular and because I think people are genuinely pretty sick of Republican politics, and rightly so.

We've got to use this historic opportunity in 2020 to elect somebody who is willing to challenge corporate power, who is willing to say that we cannot have a multi-billion-dollar ExxonMobil continuing to produce what it produces and also have a livable planet; that we cannot have a humane Health Care policy and private health insurance companies making hundreds of millions of dollars in profit; that we cannot have a Wall Street that eviscerates industries; and also have sustainable wages and a sustainable economy for most workers; that all of these things are in conflict; and that we actually need a president and a political leadership that is willing to take sides and say that there is no Third Way. Climate science is telling us that. What’s the right metaphor for climate change? If climate change is a meteor headed towards earth, then we have an obligation right now to look at which presidential candidates have voted to accelerate the meteor and which ones have voted to stop it.

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We have an obligation now to to do what we can to elect a president who is serious about stopping the meteor and I don't care which particular candidate wins for president: Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or Sherrod Brown or any of these other people. My goal as a journalist and as a person who has children and who lives on planet Earth is that we elect somebody who is serious about dealing with these crises and is not afraid to stand against corporate forces.

KH: So, you have a pro-planet, pro-human survival bias.

DR: I will admit that I am anti- mass extinction and I am pro-ecosystem that supports human life. I'm so biased.

Katie Halper

Katie Halper

Katie Halper is a writer, comedian, filmmaker and the host of "The Katie Halper Show," a weekly WBAI radio show and podcast (become a patron of the show on Patreon here). Her writing has appeared in New York Magazine, Common Dreams, Rolling Stone, Salon, The Guardian, and The Nation, and she has appeared on MSNBC, Sirius Radio, Fox News Radio and "The Young Turks."  Follow her on Twitter: @Kthalps

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