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Sirota: Journalist or Activist?

Longtime Democratic activist David Sirota seems to have irked plenty of folks on Capitol Hill -- including reporters and even some aides -- with his clever end-run around the rules. Sirota, who's writing a book about his former boss, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), was denied media credentials to cover Congress on the basis that he's not a liberal writer but a liberal strategist, which, by definition would preclude him from getting a press pass.

So reporters who knew that the House and Senate periodical galleries had rejected his application for credentials were surprised to see Sirota outside the Senate chamber, and elsewhere in the hallowed halls of Congress, wearing an intern pass and interviewing senators as if he were, well, some sort of journalist, which Sirota, who has a personal Web site/blog and writes for the magazine In These Times, considers himself to be despite protestations to the contrary.

With no press credential, Sirota can't freely roam the halls or loiter outside the Senate chamber to interview the three Senators who he's shadowing for his book: Sanders, and newly elected Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). So he got a temporary "intern's" ID from Sanders, which gives him access to areas of the Capitol that are restricted to regular visitors.

Sirota tells the Sleuth he used the intern pass only for two and a half days. He says it's "unclear" whether he'll need to use it again, which we presume he would if he's writing an entire book on Sanders, Tester and Brown.

He says the notion that he got "special access" to the United States Capitol is "just bizarre." Shouldn't Congress be open to everyone, he asks? He adds, "I think a lot of reporters on the Hill want to monopolize access to our government as a way to preserve their monopoly on news I guess."

According to the gallery rules, "Persons eligible for admission to the Periodical Press Galleries must be bona fide resident correspondents of reputable standing, giving their chief attention to the gathering and reporting of news."

The Executive Committee of the Periodical Correspondents' Association, which is comprised of credentialed journalists, felt that Sirota's chief intention is not to the gathering of news but to the advancement of Democratic causes and candidates. The committee's chairwoman, Lorraine Woellert, cited the first paragraph of Sirota's offical biography, which she said used to lead his Web site. It reads:

"David Sirota is a veteran campaign strategist, political operative and writer living in Helena, Mont. He is the founder and co-chair of the Progressive Legislative Action Network (PLAN)-- an organization created to support progressive state legislators and fight back against the right wing's extremist campaigns at the state level."

Woellert tells the Sleuth that after the executive committee told Sirota the group could not grant him a credential based on his own description of himself, he "rewrote his Web site." She said members of the committee felt strongly that Sirota -- who has worked for Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, Sen. Sanders and Connecticut Democratic Senate candidate Ned Lamont, among others -- was a political activist.

It is also the policy of the House and Senate periodical galleries not to accredit people who seek press credentials for the purpose of writing a book, according to Woellert. Employed, credentialed journalists may write books and use their press passes to gain access in the process, but non-credentialed people who apply for press passes for the sole purpose of writing a book are turned down as a matter of policy.

The intern ID was Woellert's idea. She said she suggested to Sirota that he ask Sanders for an "intern badge or something to get him access for the days he needed it" since an appeal of the committee's decision would take many weeks and Sirota needed temporary credentials immediately to work on his book.

Jeff Weaver, an aide to Sen. Sanders, did not return a phone call seeking comment. But Matt McKenna, the spokesman for Sen. Tester, said Sirota scheduled his interviews with Tester in advance. In other words, he didn't grab the senator off the Senate floor or in other areas of the Capitol that are walled off the general public as congressional reporters do.

Sirota, while he said Woellert was "sympathetic" to him, warned, "Ultimately the more the folks -- the reporters who abuse their control of the situation -- behave like this, the more pressure there will be to make the Capitol more transparent."

By Mary Ann Akers  |  February 12, 2007; 7:12 PM ET
 
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Next: Sirota: Journalist or Activist, Part II

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