David Sirota opened Slack at 4:35 p.m. Eastern time on Friday, March 10, and typed three letters: “OMG.” Then he pasted a link to a 220-page PDF of eight-year-old congressional testimony showing the president of Silicon Valley Bank, which had failed hours earlier, “directly lobbying for less regulatory scrutiny,” as Sirota messaged his colleagues at the Lever. “Is anyone up for a story?”
The tech industry was in panic mode. A Twitter-era bank run had caused the government to take control of SVB. The crisis had heightened concerns about the entire banking sector. Sirota wanted to find an angle for his small but mighty news start-up. So he pored over congressional PDFs until he found one.
Three colleagues gathered context, reached out for comment, and prepped the story. Sirota cheered-slash-pressured the team to hurry. “This is such a hot story we need to file soon,” he slacked at five p.m. By 6:28, “SVB Chief Pressed Lawmakers to Weaken Bank Risk Regs” was online. The next morning one of the bibles of Wall Street, The New York Times’s DealBook newsletter, cited the Lever’s reporting. Sirota tweeted the win and resumed researching the next SVB story.
Sirota, 47, is the founder and editor of the Lever, which he launched in 2020; it calls itself “a reader-supported news organization holding power accountable.” His Slack avatar is the Phillies Phanatic, and he exudes the same energy as the mascot. Sirota is a hustler, and a brawler too. Before going to bed on March 12, he tweeted, “Really wild that a bootstrapped 9-person newsroom funded by readers is breaking open stuff like this while corporate-funded newsrooms employing hundreds of people are instead producing lots [of] stories about Joe Biden’s aviator sunglasses and green M&Ms.”
Sirota has been around long enough to know why sites churn out clickbait. He is the author of three books; a co-writer of the film Don’t Look Up, for which he received an Oscar nomination; and a former speechwriter for Bernie Sanders. He has a few other “former” titles that you might not expect in the same sentence: Democratic campaign strategist, morning-radio host, guest star on The Goldbergs. But it all adds up. Sirota’s life has been one long campaign against plutocrats and the corrupt politicians who enable them.
“We all have a worldview,” he says, jabbing at journalists who pretend they don’t. “My worldview is that the rich have way too much power in this society, and it’s completely out of whack. My worldview is that government is plagued by corruption and that’s why we have policies that are unfair.”
But, crucially, Sirota doesn’t give in to the “nothing matters” nihilism that pervades so much political discourse. “It does matter!” he exclaims. “The Democratic Party, for example, is a flawed and in many ways corrupt party, but it can be moved, it can be pressured, kicking and screaming.”
When I called Sirota at his Denver home on Tuesday, the Lever was about to publish another banking investigation, headlined Regulators Greenlit SVB’s Risky Investments. Its home page also trumpeted recent scoops about the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. “If you nail a story well enough,” Sirota says, “you can actually move politicians who don’t want to move.”
One of the bibles of Wall Street, The New York Times’s DealBook newsletter, cited the Lever’s reporting. Sirota tweeted the win and resumed researching the next SVB story.
Krystal Ball, co-host of the podcast Breaking Points, is a longtime fan of Sirota’s work, and the two media outlets now have a content-sharing deal. “Lever’s reporting on Norfolk Southern and SVB has really pushed the mainstream press to deal with the issues of political capture and deregulation that are at the heart of those crises,” Ball says. “They beat the legacy press on both of those stories and shaped the mainstream coverage.”
Sirota worked on his first political race while a senior at Northwestern University. Then came another campaign, and another, before he connected with Sanders. So how did he gravitate to the idiosyncratic socialist senator? “I was sending my résumé around D.C.,” he says, including to some congressional offices. “Back then you didn’t know who you were applying to—they would just describe the member of Congress without saying their name.” He received a call back from Jeff Weaver, Sanders’s chief of staff, who said his boss “wants to interview you.”
“I didn’t know who Bernie was,” Sirota recalls. But the job wound up being “completely transformative for me as a person.” He experienced Congress in all its possibility and all its vulgarity through the eyes of the only registered independent in the institution.
After his first stint with Sanders, Sirota joined the Center for American Progress; moved to Montana with his wife, Emily, now a Colorado state lawmaker, and advised campaigns; and wrote his first book, Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government—And How We Take It Back, which was favorably blurbed by Al Gore.
Come 2009, Sirota found himself behind a radio mike in Denver, doing drive-time talk for the city’s progressive talk station. Then “I got promoted,” he says, but hesitates to talk about it. He was placed on Denver’s bigger conservative talk station and cast as the counterpoint to Michael “Heck of a job, Brownie” Brown—the hapless head of FEMA during Hurricane Katrina. I remarked that it sounded like a Hannity & Colmes situation, when Fox News paired hard-charging right-winger Sean Hannity with the mild-mannered leftie Alan Colmes. Sirota lasted a year. “I wasn’t willing to roll over and play nice,” he says.
Maybe that’s why his name is often preceded by words such as “pugilistic.” A 2003 Newsweek profile of Sirota, back when he was e-mailing official D.C. with daily missives against the George W. Bush administration, called him “intense, driven, even obsessive.” Sirota says now, “I think people perceive me as being harsher or harder-edged than I am.” He’s a nice guy, he says! “But I also have a job to do. And I have principles. I’m not going to change those.”
After the radio job went kaput, he made a tactical change to move from talking about the news to gathering it. “I wanted to have a job where I could have the time to unearth things, not just talk about them,” he says.
His first reporting job, at the now shuttered Web publication PandoDaily, triggered a mini-scandal at PBS over a reporting project called “Pension Peril” that was bankrolled by a billionaire who’s been dubbed “The Most Hated Man in Pension Land.” PBS returned the $3.5 million in grant money. Sirota was name-checked in The New York Times and praised by the PBS ombudsman. That was “the first taste I had of journalism changing things,” he says.
He has pursued change in other ways, too, notably through his collaboration with Adam McKay on the climate change allegory Don’t Look Up. McKay told me via e-mail that Sirota “lives and breathes holding power accountable,” and yet, “somehow he’s also funny.”
“I actually think his sense of humor is what keeps him afloat,” McKay commented. “If I had to report on the level of illegal and legal corruption our country is mired in 24-7 I’d move to Norway. But he’s still able to laugh.”
Bhaskar Sunkara, founding editor of the left-wing magazine Jacobin and now the president of The Nation, calls Sirota, whom he has published, “a throwback to the socialist muckrakers of a different era,” a man able to combine moral outrage “with real journalistic chops.” But the crusading newspaper columnists of yore are gone. We’re left with an emerging class of indie digital publications that chase scoops and subscriptions. It’s a stressful life for a publisher like Sirota—but preferable to his prior life of bouncing from outlet to outlet. Reporting on the rich and powerful “is not exactly a reliable path for career advancement inside the media industry,” Sirota quips, though he praises journalists who are able to do it.
He says Sanders’s name on his résumé was “a point of contention” in job interviews, though he never regretted it. Sanders, determined to run for president again after losing to Hillary Clinton in 2016, recruited him for the 2020 campaign, so Sirota came aboard as a senior adviser. Sirota says, “I really enjoyed doing the speechwriting for Bernie when—this is a key point—when he wanted to work with a speechwriter.” That comment made me want to hear more about the times when Sanders didn’t want help. Sirota pointed to a New York Times story from 2020 that said he wanted Sanders to criticize Joe Biden much more sharply, which Sanders never did.
He was placed on Denver’s bigger conservative talk station and cast as the counterpoint to Michael “Heck of a job, Brownie” Brown—the hapless head of FEMA during Hurricane Katrina.
So is Sirota a journalist or an activist? The Washington Post, in 2007, dedicated a pair of blog posts to the question. The answer is that he is both. Sirota says his reporting highlights “the same issues of corruption and malfeasance” that were hit by the political races he aided.
But at the Lever, he says, “we don’t serve politicians, whether that politician is Bernie Sanders or anyone else. We don’t make calculations like ‘Oh, is this going to offend this political faction or that political party?’” He does have a knack for offending, about which Ball says, “It’s pretty simple. If you hold power to account, you are going to piss off a lot of people.” But simultaneously appeal to others: Sirota says the Lever has more than 91,000 total subscribers, up 71 percent from the start of the year, and about 10,000 of those are paying subscribers.
On the SVB story, liberal prescriptions for restoring regulations have been met by conservative allegations about “woke” banks. I can almost hear Sirota gag at the culture-war arguments. “I think that the economic-class war is the most important war going on in America,” he says. “I think that, by and large, the culture war is a deliberate distraction from that.”
But his belief in change through media coverage has him focusing more on politicos than on pundits. “I presume that Norfolk Southern will trample everything in its way to make as much money as possible for itself and its shareholders,” he says. “It is almost an amoral force, so the first point of pressure should be: What are the rules of the game that Norfolk Southern is playing? Because the rules of the game are supposed to confine those economic actors. So the foremost question should be: Who put those rules together?”
Sirota has been calling out prominent Democrats as well as Republicans on his 24-7 Twitter feed. “If the Republicans are the Harlem Globetrotters of evil,” he says, “then the Democrats are the Washington Generals. You have to put a better team on the court. And to put a better team on the court, the fans have to demand a better team.”
That’s the eternally optimistic part of Sirota that I didn’t expect to hear. It is reflected, too, in the name of the Lever. The site was originally called the Daily Poster, in a sort of in-joke about shitposters on social media. But the underlying project is serious. Publications such as The Guardian have syndicated Sirota’s content; he holds live audio shows and recently launched a full-blown podcast network. The inspiration for a new name came from the Greek mathematician Archimedes, who said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”
Brian Stelter is the Walter Shorenstein Media and Democracy Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. He is a former anchor of CNN’s Reliable Sources and a former media reporter for The New York Times