The Former Journalist Who Is Bernie Sanderss Media Critic

 nytimes.com  01/21/2020 20:46:36   Marc Tracy

David Sirotas job is to remind the candidates supporters why he dislikes the news media.

David Sirota at his home office in Denver. A former journalist, he joined the Sanders campaign last March as a speechwriter and senior adviser.
David Sirota at his home office in Denver. A former journalist, he joined the Sanders campaign last March as a speechwriter and senior adviser.Credit...Benjamin Rasmussen for The New York Times
Marc Tracy

When the first in-house newsletter of Bernie Sanderss campaign landed in inboxes last August, its chief antagonist was neither President Trump nor a rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, but rather The Washington Post and, as the email said, the Washington pundits who are paid by the corporations and billionaires who own the media.

Campaigning in Iowa a few days earlier, Mr. Sanders, the senator from Vermont, had accused The Post of withholding positive coverage because of his efforts to raise the minimum wage at Amazon, the internet retail giant founded by the newspapers owner, Jeff Bezos. Several prominent journalists objected to the comment  a full freak out, as the newsletter, which is called Bern Notice, put it.

Reporters dont have to receive a call from Jeff Bezos, it said, to know that their paychecks are signed by a billionaire with a well-known personal and corporate agenda  and knowing that agenda exists can shape overall frameworks and angles of coverage.

Bern Notice has been churned out at a rate of approximately four emails per week by David Sirota, who joined the Sanders campaign last March as a speechwriter and senior adviser. It is one of several ways  another is a podcast, Hear the Bern through which the campaign has tried to bypass traditional news outlets and reach voters directly.

You can control your message, Mr. Sirota said in one of two long interviews in New York late last year. But you have to let people fight the fight.

Were not saying anything in here that were not saying out there, he added.

It is not his only theme. Bern Notice received attention Monday for having promoted a Guardian column by Zephyr Teachout, a Sanders surrogate, that accused Joseph R. Biden Jr. of having a big corruption problem hours before Mr. Sanders disavowed the column. (That newsletter edition was erased from the internet as of Tuesday morning.)

Mr. Sanders talks frequently about wanting to stick to the issues, but he and his surrogates take-no-prisoners tone risks distracting from their substance.

Media criticism is a prime example. Mr. Sirota, a journalist as recently as a year ago who early in his career served as press secretary to Mr. Sanders when he was a House representative, has amplified the campaigns consistent focus on criticizing news outlets that most regard as mainstream, targeting stories that he considers unfair.

After Mr. Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts tussled in last weeks debate over whether Mr. Sanders had told Ms. Warren he did not believe a woman could defeat Mr. Trump, for instance, Mr. Sirota accused CNN of contriving the story, even though the two candidates themselves confirmed the disagreement on live television. The media dont want you to be focused on or talking about Biden and his retrograde agenda, he tweeted. They want you to be focused on manufactured controversies.

Politicians have long deflected criticism onto the news media, blaming it for not covering them the way they want. But the frequency and tenor of the Sanders campaigns critique is unusual, a cant-miss leitmotif alongside Medicare for all, the Green New Deal, the millionaires and the billionaires.

I am not a candidate of the corporate media, Mr. Sanders has said.

A particularly visible contributor to this effort is Mr. Sirota, who even while working as a journalist seemed to delight in trolling the media from inside the house. Accepting the 2015 Izzy Award for special achievement in independent media (it is named for the radical muckraker I.F. Stone), Mr. Sirota spoke of doing hard-hitting investigations at an outlet that allows you to do it, which tend not to be legacy media outlets.

But assailing the mainstream media could prove tricky for the campaign. A recent Pew study found that 76 percent of Democrats believe journalists act in the public interest; many support what they see as the ferreting out of executive office malfeasance. Mr. Trump, highly unpopular among voters who will choose the Democratic nominee, routinely demonizes the press, labeling it the enemy of the people and attacking individual outlets in strikingly personal terms.

I think its politically nave, Todd Gitlin, a professor at the Columbia Journalism School and a prominent liberal writer, said of Mr. Sanderss press criticism, but also analytically misguided, and overlooking the significance of the investigations that the news media have delivered in the last three years.

The publisher of the progressive magazine The Nation, Katrina vanden Heuvel, who has endorsed Mr. Sanderss broader media critique, sees the challenge in the senators approach. I do think its tricky just to attack media, she said. It works best, she added, when he does it with a humane criticism that millions of Americans are being shorted in terms of the coverage of their own lives and communities.

Those associated with the campaign would insist that the Trump critique and the Sanders critique are substantively different.

Trumps authoritarian bullying of the media is totally unacceptable and it must be denounced and rejected, Mr. Sanders wrote last year in a Columbia Journalism Review op-ed.

Mr. Sirota has labeled the inevitable comparison to Mr. Trump bad faith.

Bernie is basically arguing that the medias ownership structure makes it less interested in covering the real issues, Mr. Sirota said. Trump is like, The media, as an institution in society, shouldnt be there and is evil.

The Sanders campaign features staff members experienced at viewing the mainstream media closely but from the outside, including veterans of ThinkProgress, a media site that was owned by a progressive think tank; The Intercept, a site co-founded by the journalist Glenn Greenwald whose Washington bureau focuses on the left; and Media Matters for America, a liberal press watchdog. The campaign declined to make several figures available to comment for this article.

Mr. Sirota presents the most interesting case. Although he began his career working for congressmen and political institutions, he spent more than a decade as a conventional journalist. He won an award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers for investigating pension-fund management, and shared a second for an investigation into how several prominent supporters of Mr. Trumps 2017 tax law would benefit from one of its provisions. He wrote a San Francisco Chronicle opinion column that was syndicated, and was a frequent presence in progressive magazines.

This career has earned Mr. Sirota credibility when he goes on the offensive against news coverage, supporters say.

Hes an investigative journalist  he obviously believes in journalism, said Representative Ro Khanna, Democrat of California and a chairman of the Sanders campaign. It suggests the respect Senator Sanders has for journalists.

In person, Mr. Sirota, 44, cuts a different figure from the abrasive fire-breather visible on Twitter during the 2016 Democratic primary (Mr. Sirota deleted most of his past tweets early last year). He speaks with animation, but softly. On a recent trip to New York, he insisted on dropping by B&H Photo Video, a massive midtown electronics store beloved by hobbyists. He is a vegetarian.

He first encountered Mr. Sanders in 1999, when, as a young Democrat from the Philadelphia suburbs and Northwestern University, he applied to work for an unnamed representative identified in a job listing as progressive. Invited to interview with the office of Mr. Sanders, at the time Vermonts at-large congressman, Mr. Sirota wondered: What is a democratic socialist?

Since then, Mr. Sirota has never strayed far from Mr. Sanders, whose office helped him land Capitol press credentials when he was reporting a book. He tended toward independent journalistic homes such as Salon, Pando Daily and IB Times/Newsweek, even though he said he did not actively avoid the mainstream media (he once interviewed for a job at The New York Times).

As 2018 turned to 2019 and a second Sanders presidential run seemed likely, Mr. Sirota began informally discussing the prospect of joining the campaign, he said. An Atlantic article published several days after his hiring last March reported that Mr. Sirotas columns and copious tweets attacking other Democrats had appeared while he was quietly advising the Sanders campaign. A subsequent Intercept article reported that there was no overlap between Mr. Sirotas tenures as columnist and campaign official.

Mr. Sirota said last fall that once the talks with Mr. Sanderss circle grew serious, he stopped publishing articles about other candidates.

My principles dont change with the job Im in, he added.

Mr. Sanders is for all intents and purposes his own speechwriter, Mr. Sirota said. Im a speech researcher, he said. Nobody tells Bernie Sanders what to say.

Mr. Sirota also said he helps plan campaign strategy  where to stop on an Iowa tour highlighting corporate greed, for example  and functions as a rapid-response war room. When the campaign revealed in early October that Mr. Sanders had two stents inserted in his heart  after what was later disclosed as a heart attack  one could trace the campaigns talking point that the procedure highlighted the need for Medicare for all from a Dr. Oz appearance on Fox & Friends, back to Bern Notice, and back again to Mr. Sirotas Twitter feed.

Mr. Sirota works remotely from Denver, where he lives with his wife, Emily  a state representative who has traded endorsements with her husbands boss  and their two children, while traveling on campaign swings through Iowa, California and the Carolinas.

Mr. Khanna called Mr. Sirota one of the five or so true believers, along with Jane Sanders and a few others.

Mr. Sanders has been critical of the media  on his own media platforms  almost as long as he has been in the public eye. In a 1988 episode of Bernie Speaks With the Community, the Vermont public access television show featuring Mr. Sanders when he was Burlingtons mayor, he addressed a crowd gathered to celebrate a local alt-weekly. With the famous Yippie Abbie Hoffman looking on, Mr. Sanders  his hair just a little more plentiful and a little less snowy than it is now  laid into corporate media.

If you think that the function of Channel 3 or The Burlington Free Press is to educate you about the world in which youre living, its not, its really not, he said. Thats the nature of private media in general: The function of private media is to make money for people who own it.

Decades before he ran for president, Mr. Sanders criticized television commercials for Hitlerian attention-grabbing tactics. He knocked USA Today for its short articles and color photographs. All, to him, were evidence that a crucial industry was being dumbed down into infotainment for the sake of the profit motive.

Mr. Sirota has known of Mr. Sanderss intense interest in the workings of the media for some time. He recalled Mr. Sanderss reading up on the conservative press baron Rupert Murdoch  like a student of how Rupert Murdoch built his empire  two decades ago. Mr. Sirota bumped into Mr. Sanders in Madison, Wis., in 2003 at the inaugural gathering of Free Press, a progressive media advocacy group.

Rather than ad hoc protests conjured up case by case, Mr. Sanderss complaints can seem of a piece with his critique of American society at large  a dynamic succinctly brought home at a Washington Post event last summer when Mr. Sanders walked onstage and wearily asked, Is Bank of America really sponsoring this? (It was.)

Bernie represents a series of policies and an agenda. That agenda is not an agenda lots of billionaire or corporate media owners like or support, Mr. Sirota said. Its not to say that theres a conspiracy  guys in a room with mustaches, saying, Oh, weve got to get Bernie. But it ends up being expressed as kind of eye-rolling.

Mr. Sirota said he missed journalism and hoped to return to it eventually, while also wondering whether his association with Mr. Sanders had tainted him with mainstream employers. As he contemplated his career trajectory in the media world that he currently critiques on behalf of his boss almost daily, some of that vinegar crept into his thinking about his own prospects.

In the media, even before he ran for president, having that on your rsum was perceived as uncouth, or, Whoa, this is outrageous, Mr. Sirota said. That illustrates how the media world looks not only at Bernie Sanders, but at what he represents.

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