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.”
SCOOP @davidsirota, 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: https://t.co/VBSp7dBbyx
— Edward-Isaac Dovere (@IsaacDovere) March 19, 2019
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 appears 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:
'David Sirota in the Guardian has been trashing most of Bernie Sanders's opponents without disclosing his work with Sanders' @isaacdovere in The Atlantic. This is totally untrue. Once David was approached by Sanders he wrote nothing else for us. https://t.co/LPFPWmzfQ6
— john mulholland (@jnmulholland) March 19, 2019
— ErikWemple (@ErikWemple) March 19, 2019
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 entire 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.
Read the full article, and possible updates, at The Intercept.