Former Denver radio host and longtime reporter David Sirota announced on March 19 that he was setting journalism aside for now in favor of a new role as a speechwriter and communications expert in the campaign of Vermont senator and 2020 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders — a jump he discussed with Westword yesterday morning.
A few hours later, the narrative changed. And it got much, much uglier.
The catalyst for this transformation was a story published on The Atlantic site headlined "Bernie Sanders Just Hired His Twitter Attack Dog." In it, reporter Edward-Isaac Dovere argued that Sirota's history of slashing tweets aimed at numerous Democratic presidential hopefuls, among others, contradicted an earlier Sanders email asking everyone in his campaign to do their best "to engage respectfully with our Democratic opponents — talking about the issues we are fighting for, not about personalities or past grievances. I want to be clear that I condemn bullying and harassment of any kind and in any space."
Dovere also maintained that Sirota had been secretly advising Sanders for months prior to formally joining the Bernie express, allegedly transforming the aforementioned attacks on the likes of Beto O’Rourke, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Joe Biden and Kirsten Gillibrand, plus Colorado's own John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet, from the personal thoughts of an impassioned scribe to unacknowledged political surrogacy. (Sirota acknowledged that he'd recently deleted thousands of his old tweets — although he insisted that this was part of an automatic process, not some attempt to bury his social-media past, and it's a procedure that others have followed as they moved from journalism into communications work for government agencies, companies and politicians alike.)
Suddenly, Sirota's name was flashing across the Twittersphere at thunder-thumbing speed, with the likes of Denver Post editorial page editor Megan Schrader among those who used the opportunity for bashing. "Just going to leave this here and say I breathed a sigh of relief that @davidsirota won't be sullying real, hardworking Colorado journalists anymore with his Tweets," Schrader explained in a retweet of the Atlantic item.
Schrader then shared an October article about funding behind anti-fracking measure Proposition 112 that Sirota had written with current Westword staff writer Chase Woodruff in a joint project with Capital & Main, one of several 112-related Sirota articles that Westword published before the November elections. "Case in point: everyone quoted in this article expresses agreement with [former Colorado Secretary of State] Wayne Williams' interpretation of the law, but Sirota framed it like some kind of scandal. That's bad journalism," she maintained.
In the midst of this onslaught, Sirota briefly hunkered down. But just after 7 p.m., he took to his own formidable Twitter account (he's got more than 128,000 followers) to drop these questions: "Did I really Twitter trend today? That really happened? Was everyone just bored?"
He was more loquacious in conversation with yours truly, when he pointed to his past association with Sanders — Sirota served as his press secretary in 2000 — as one of many factors that led to his career shift.
"Obviously, I worked for Bernie twenty years ago, and I did other political work," he said. "I worked for David Obey, a longtime congressman; I worked for [Montana's] Brian Schweitzer both for his senate and governor race. But then I transitioned to journalism — and even though journalism is a hard industry to work in, I think I did a pretty good job at it for the last, I guess, fourteen years. I was a columnist and then a radio host and then an investigative reporter."
He stresses that "I was happy in my current job. But then Bernie called me up — this was fairly recently. He had decided he was going to run, and he said, 'I'd like you to do this job.' And I accepted it, but not because I don't think journalism is important. It's extremely important — and it's also under assault financially and by the Trump administration. But I think the crises we're facing now are so enormously existential that when I was asked to serve in this role, I felt I had an obligation and a responsibility to serve. That's why I'm doing it."
This choice wasn't without its complications. After all, he and his wife, Emily Sirota, who was recently elected to the Colorado House of Representative in the 9th District, have two young children. "Just the logistical balancing of all this is not going to be easy," he allowed. But even though a considerable amount of travel will be involved (Sirota is scheduled to head to California to meet Sanders's team this weekend), he said he is confident "we'll be able to make it work."
When asked about the rest of the Democratic field, Sirota was complimentary, not dismissive or incendiary, as some of his tweets have been. "There are a lot of really impressive candidates running," he said. "But I wouldn't be doing this job if I didn't believe it's very important to elect Bernie Sanders president. I think the crises we face on so many issues, from poverty to economic inequality to climate change, are so acute that I believe the country needs a transformational leader who has a record, a long and consistent record, of being on the right side of the issues."
He added: "I think Bernie's record and where he comes down on the issues and his fearlessness in taking on powerful interests makes it uniquely important that he become president in 2020. But I don't want to insinuate that other candidates aren't qualified."
In his new job, Sirota will be "helping Bernie with his speeches," he said. "But even though the position is called 'speechwriter,' nobody puts words in Bernie Sanders's mouth. He knows exactly what he wants to say and exactly how he wants to say it. So I'll be supporting him in doing these speeches in the sense of everything from research to data to incorporating examples and stories about what he's saying. To be clear, Bernie Sanders is not [Anchorman character] Ron Burgundy, who just stares at the teleprompter and will say whatever it tells him to. Bernie Sanders takes what he says very, very seriously. So I'll just be supporting him, and I'll also be helping with the larger communications effort in the sense of essentially working with the campaign surrogates to get the message out in different states. I'll basically be a jack-of-all-trades on communications."
When asked how Sanders would compete against fellow Democrats in an effort to secure the party's presidential nomination, Sirota suggested that his boss was in many ways "already taking on Donald Trump. He's arguably the most electable candidate against Trump, because his message is one that completely confronts and contrasts with Trump in a very sharp way. Bernie Sanders can go into the upper Midwest, which the Democrats lost in 2016, with a very strong message about corporate power, trade policy, economic inequality and the unfairness of the political system. And there's no question about whose side he's on. He's on the side of the people — a very honest and forthright and authentic person in challenging the fossil fuel industry, the health-insurance industry and the all-powerful interests that still control Washington, D.C."
Sirota's observations suggested that he was already in mid-campaign form. Asked about that, he responded, "I'm not really trying to be on-message. It's actually true."
As for The Atlantic salvo that arrived after Sirota said these words, the debate continues. John Mulholland, editor of the Guardian newspaper, where Sirota published stories into December, took to Twitter with this: "'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."
Dovore responded: "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."
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But then there's Faiz Shakir, Sanders's campaign manager. In The Atlantic, Dovore credits Shakir with saying that Sirota began advising the campaign before he was hired on March 11 and characterized his informal work — a trial period of sorts — as going back months.
In an email to Westword, Shakir wrote, "I'm going to let my comments to The Atlantic speak for me. But their characterization of him advising the campaign for months is wrong. Here's the timetable: Feb 14 — Sirota resigns his previous position. Feb 20 — Sirota begins informally advising the campaign. March 11 — Sirota signs offer letter to formally become speechwriter."
Last evening, Sirota texted this same list of dates to Westword. Asked if he could talk in greater detail about the accusations against him, he replied, "No, I don't have anything more to say. Have to make hamentashen with the kids."
For the uninitiated, hamentashen is a triangular-shaped cookie associated with Purim, a Jewish holiday that begins this evening. Fortunately for Sirota, he's got something to celebrate.