TO:   The Intercept’s Editors

FROM: Shahid Buttar for Congress Campaign

DATE:  August 20, 2020

Request for immediate retraction and correction of recklessly inaccurate piece by Akela Lacy published on July 23 and updated on August 17, 2020

The Shahid Buttar for Congress campaign invites an immediate retraction and correction of the article entitled: Shahid Buttar’s Bid to Unseat Nancy Pelosi Roiled by Accusations of Staff Mistreatment (originally published on July 23 and updated on August 17) in response to numerous factual errors, ethical lapses, and the faulty premise of the entire story.

The reporting violated basic standards of journalistic ethics by failing to verify facts and contributing to—and spreading across The Intercept’s international audience—an organized campaign to promote a false narrative that was previously confined to irresponsible local press outlets. While we appreciate the recent updates to the story on August 17, they barely address the vast litany of errors pervading the article even as revised. Those inaccuracies reveal a reckless disregard for the truth, as outlined below, with profound consequences for our campaign, as well as the policy landscape.

While The Intercept’s story published on July 23 added no information to the public discussion beyond what local outlets had previously printed without verifying their facts, we did share further information with the Intercept that could have added to the public discussion but was mostly ignored, with the exception of statistical evidence misattributed to a volunteer that then subjected her to harassment by former campaign staff. Voices with viewpoints contrary to the prevailing narrative came forward, and several with direct experience contradicting the sources quoted by Ms. Lacy left messages for Ms. Lacy prior to the article’s publication—but every one of them was ignored, as was documentary evidence shared with The Intercept on approximately July 31 by the first of several volunteers who came forward to report on calls and texts they had received recruiting them to participate in what one of them described (in the text messages shared with The Intercept) as “a smear campaign.” Your editors preposterously dismissed them as irrelevant on August 4.

The revisions made to the story on August 17 dramatically change its narrative arc and do meaningfully add to the public discussion, but they are apparent neither to a casual reader, nor to any of your many readers who have read that story over the past month before the recent updates. The Intercept’s published editorial policies and procedures suggest that: “Significant corrections will be noted in the headline or at the top of the story.” While the headline was thankfully edited to remove the irresponsible reference in the original headline to an ultimately spurious allegation, the correction was noted neither in the headline nor at the top of the story.

We first invite a formal correction to the original story, or in the alternative, as provided in your policies, a note in the headline or at the top of the original story noting its substantial revision from the original publication. Given the irreparable damage done to our campaign by virtue of The Intercept’s amplification of the smear campaign, we further invite you to publish a new story reflecting greater fidelity to the facts.

The need to correct the record extends well beyond our campaign. Prior to the publication of the smears, our campaign was continuing to accelerate, gain momentum, and exercise increasing influence on the incumbent’s federal policy positions—apparent on issues from labor rights and congressional war powers to qualified immunity and supporting the Postal Service. As documented in (contrary to the narrative of) your original story, our campaign demonstrated remarkable acceleration in the months after the transition to a more skilled and experienced staff. Our fundraising efforts drew increasing support, our field team had dramatically expanded and accelerated, and the relentless expansion of our social media audience suggested that our ability to influence the Speaker would only grow. The week before the smear campaign was launched, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a front page story noting Speaker Pelosi’s continuing refusal to debate her election challenger even after 33 years of having declined to defend her record in public.

The publication of the smears had devastating impacts on our campaign: it ratified stories previously contained to local press, lending them the credibility of an internationally renowned investigative outlet that, in this case, failed to conduct any meaningful investigation. Our campaign lost the endorsements of Supervisor Dean Preston and School Board member Gabriela Lopez the same week, DSA-SF the following week, the SF Tenants Union the week after that, and Progressive Democrats of America-SF and the Harvey Milk Democratic Club (which local press have reported was swayed by the reports of misogyny irresponsibly validated by the Intercept) the following week. Alongside the loss of our local organizational endorsements was an equally challenging erosion of our volunteer base, driven by the alienation of supporters who believed the false construction promoted by The Intercept’s irresponsible publication of accusation without verifying facts, and even after establishing facts contrary to the contrived narrative. The momentum we had established on our field team and fundraising both stalled, and reversed for a period of weeks following the publication of these stories before recovering.

As the first Democrat to ever challenge Pelosi in a general election, the damage to Shahid’s name and our campaign is irreparable, but a story with greater concern for the facts could at least set the record straight.

The following is a list of errors in the piece that range from simple factual errors, to confusion about a complex narrative knowingly presented with inaccurate framing. [ed: Some names redacted for privacy]

  • The article’s inaccuracies start in the revised headline, which implies that at the time the articles, the campaign was stumbling amid staff departures driven by allegations of sexism and mistreatment of staff in the workplace. That is demonstrably false. Until these inaccurate hit pieces were published by outlets including The Intercept, the campaign was thriving. We contributed several numerical metrics which objectively indicated campaign success on all measures. Their implication was not stated in the article, which insisted that the campaign was set back by the departures of previous staff despite objective evidence to the contrary.
  • The July 23 article states Buttar’s campaign “has faced a period of personnel turmoil since the March 3 Democratic primary, with at least 10 staffers and contractors departing.” There were in fact only six full-time staffers who departed over the course of several months, and there was no personnel turmoil beyond the transition to new staff with greater experience. Included in the number cited by The Intercept were people whose work on the campaign was marginal, and the article dramatically mis-represented the impact of those transitions. It seems that each individual staff person who worked for the PR firm retained by the campaign was included and presented as if they were staff, as were contractors whose work amounted to a handful of hours a week. Meanwhile, volunteers who spent far more time on the campaign—in the sense of either joining the campaign earlier, staying with us longer, and putting in more time while they were with us, came forward to share their experiences at their own will and contradicting the former staff accounts—but the Intercept ignored those voices. No more than two full-time employees left the campaign at the same time. There was never a mass exodus of campaign staff as falsely described by the Intercept and former campaign staff.
  • Among numerous elements that were inaccurately conflated were Shahid’s response to the staff allegations made against him and performance metrics of the campaign. The article presented Shahid’s reaction to the staff concerns as blaming the staff for poor performance. That was never true. Shahid has always welcomed criticism and remained committed to building an inclusive workplace. The reflection on staff performance responded to the false claim that the departures in any way set the campaign back, and explained interactions (such as during the March 7 meeting, which is the only incident to which former staff have specified as) reflecting supposed misogyny.
  • In addition, the performance metrics were irresponsibly and unethically attributed to a communications volunteer who simply forwarded an email with information that Ms. Lacy requested. The source of this information was not the volunteer, but the campaign. The Intercept’s attribution of campaign metrics to the volunteer, who is a survivor of trauma, made her appear as if she was insulting former staff—which then led to the former staff bullying her (as well as other campaign volunteers who have stepped forward to correct the false narrative spread by The Intercept and other press outlets). The volunteer made clear to Ms. Lacy her individual perspective, and offered a quote on the record about how  every person who comes forward should be heard, and explaining why she chose to remain on the campaign as a survivor of sexual assault. Multiple requests for this quote to simply be attributed correctly went unanswered.
  • The sub-headline in the updated piece claims the allegations of staff mistreatment, which former staffers described to The Intercept, were the reason the San Francisco DSA chapter rescinded the organization’s endorsement of Shahid Buttar. That is demonstrably false. We offered numerous sources, including [a long term member of DSA SF familiar with the internal workings of the chapter]. [The member] confirmed that the initial resolution included multiple references to alleged sexual harassment and further insinuations that the final resolution removed. The Intercept itself quoted (and spread across its international audience) the most offensive part of the initial (and ultimately repudiated) resolution, alluding to “a pattern of abuse including but not limited to sexual [sic] inappropriate behavior with his staff and volunteers,” before the only sources for those allegations were all debunked. Put simply, the Intercept amplified a smear campaign that prompted local organizations to presume the validity of multiple accusations, each of which has remained demonstrably false from the outset.
  • The final DSA-SF resolution had nothing to do with sexual harassment, but the process unfolded under the widespread misimpression that it did, based on the Intercept’s erroneous & unethical publication of a document strategically leaked to reinforce the validity of the narrative contrived by the Intercept’s sources. In other words, the very same voices who claimed misogyny in the workplace also appear to have used the claims of Liz Croydon to launch a premature and contrived process in local clubs, and then leveraged those resolutions to gain further press coverage from the Intercept reinforcing an ultimately false narrative constructed through an organized campaign. The staff promoted a rumor involving [a volunteer] that became the basis for the portion of the DSA-SF resolution quoted by the Intercept, before [the volunteer] came forward anonymously to refute the false narrative actively promoted by former staff amplified uncritically & irresponsibly by the Intercept. All references to alleged harassment were removed from the final DSA-SF resolution because those claims were spurious, yet readers of the Intercept would never know. We urge you not to de-publish the original DSA-SF resolution, since your publication is the only public record of the original text indicating the collusion among former staff to weaponize DSA-SF to promote their smear campaign.
  • We understand that since DSA-SF has not made its final resolution document public, it may be challenging to cover the story—but the document you already saw, and the organization’s refusal to stand by it, suggest that the initial report failed to reflect the facts. The DSA resolution was leaked to the Intercept. Only you know who did that. Whoever leaked the resolution-in-process before it was corrected appears to have weaponized the Intercept in the service of spreading lies and innuendo.
  • The Intercept eventually revised its story on August 17 to establish that the allegations of sexual harassment referenced in the original story are dubious, but has yet to address the documentary evidence provided by [the aforementioned volunteer], who was one of multiple volunteers recruited (by sources quoted by the Intercept) to participate in what [the volunteer] described in writing as “a smear campaign.” She repudiated the narrative falsely promoted by the staff that informed the initial DSA-SF resolution quoted by the Intercept without any subsequent correction. She presented documentary evidence of correspondence with sources quoted by the Intercept who actively encouraged her to lie in order to support their claims.
  • We have noted that Shahid told former staff, particularly Raya Steier, about Liz Croydon’s previous history of false allegations towards Shahid, and public statements confirm that former staff reached out to her before she published a Medium post (which they appear to have helped write) on July 21 that appeared to have been submitted in an embargo (based on immediate coverage by local outlets including Mission Local, the Bay Area Reporter, and San Francisco Chronicle) coordinated with former staff and a previous PR firm, all of whom were quoted in articles published by local outlets including the Bay Area Reporter, Mission Local, and the San Francisco Chronicle immediately after the embargo lifted.
  • Shahid was asked to respond to an embargoed press release that he never saw within an hour, yet somehow Mission Local was able to collect interviews with numerous staff and a PR firm in that time. This suggests that this story emerged from a sophisticated attempt to conflate two false claims—one by Liz Croydon and the other by the staff—as corroboration of an ultimately narrative. The stories were presented in a coordinated fashion. That in itself is revealing, would add to the public discussion, and remains entirely unreported. The coordination between the former staff, Elizabeth Croydon, and DSA-San Francisco is a critical theme to the course of events that the Intercept ignored entirely. We urge you to consider who leaked to the (ultimately repudiated) DSA resolution to you and the specific timing of when it was sent, who distributed the embargoed press release to local reporters prior to their July 21 stories, and to explore how the stories and the resolution came to be in the first instance. The answer to those questions would reveal a very different picture than the one contrived by former staff with The Intercept’s support.
  • At least three sources came forward to verify that the claims included in the initial DSA-SF resolution were based on lies, given their previous interactions with former campaign staff while they were preparing their smear campaign. The Intercept’s omission of each of their voices represents a reckless disregard for the truth. Our sources were commenting specifically on the DSA-SF resolution that was the subject of your article, which was based on an incident that was debunked by documentary evidence: texts submitted by a volunteer who was contacted by former staff quoted by the Intercept proved that former staff were coordinating to fabricate this story. On August 4, Editor Maryam Saleh wrote, “The incident described in those texts was not the basis of our article, and neither was Elizabeth Croydon’s allegation. Rather, the focus of our reporting was the DSA resolution and the former staffers who spoke on the record about their experiences on the campaign.” This response, to put it charitably, is senseless: the DSA resolution was based on these claims, while the overlooked sources and evidence revealed that the former staff quoted by the Intercept were working together to promote something other than the truth. Former staff used a smoke and mirrors effort to assert allegations of sexual harassment against Shahid based on nothing that would verify their claims. Everything piece of supposed corroboration behind the allegations is coordinated, and fabricated, and each step was organized to lay the foundation for the next. We have offered multiple sources who can verify this. The Intercept’s coverage excluded every one of their voices, and allowed the international amplification of a set of allegations that DSA-SF itself repudiated, even while proceeding to rescind its endorsement of our campaign.
  • Former staff have publicly admitted their objective of forcing our campaign to end, based on their view that our campaign strategy was unsound. The self-fulfilling nature of their prophecy: the Intercept’s publication drove away many of our volunteers who had not been exposed to the spurious local press.
  • We have shared text evidence proving that the former staff were using a volunteer’s name in presenting an untrue story to put forth a smear campaign. In our request for a correction, I am re-sending texts by Patrick Cochran, a source quoted in Ms. Lacy’s article, that indicate he and Emily Jones (also quoted as a primary source) were actively reaching out to former volunteers, donors, and current staff to arrange what one of those volunteers described in the text messages as “a smear campaign.” Not only has the Intercept failed to report on this very revealing evidence, but the fact of a white man suggesting a narrative to a white woman about an alleged sexual impropriety by a man of color—which the supposed “victim” repudiated—reflects a pattern of racialized accusation with an unfortunate and inescapably relevant history.
  • Shahid’s former staff were aware that Liz Croydon made false allegations about him in the past. Former staff, namely Raya Steier, reached out to this accuser on Twitter in mid-July and later coordinated an embargoed media statement on July 21. These former staff members claimed to be DSA-SF members, but most of them were new to the group and among their first actions was to falsely accuse Shahid of sexual harassment.
  • Errors by journalists also created a problem with the claim regarding non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). The Intercept quoted an inaccurate Mission Local report that a number of former staffers said they had signed non-disparagement agreements and that Buttar denied the existence of the agreements. This goes back to the inability to have enough time to check with our lawyers ahead of the urgent deadlines of the two pieces. Shahid’s former staff have cited the existence of non-disclosure agreements as a reason to avoid giving any details to support their ultimately false claims. Nondisclosure agreements are standard mechanisms to protect the privacy of our supporters’ personal data, like emails and phone numbers. Many staff and volunteers with access to sensitive data sign them.In contrast, we have no active non-disparagement agreements with anyone on the former staff. Only one of them, [a former staff member who became a consultant], was invited to sign one as part of a consulting arrangement with the campaign. That agreement was nearly immediately terminated, however, after they reached out to donors to encourage them not to support the campaign—not based on any alleged misogyny, but (as former staff have also noted) because they did not understand the campaign strategy and lacked confidence in it. Since they violated the agreement in early June, the agreement was voided, and she has not been bound by it. We have screenshots of this outreach.That history suggests that the former staff were actively trying to damage Shahid’s campaign immediately after leaving the staff, well before coming forward with more recent claims of misogyny that they never expressed at the time (as verified by multiple members of the current staff with whom they spoke at the time, who have in turn spoken on the record). The Intercept’s confusion about the difference between non-disparagement and non-disclosure lent itself to an appearance that our statement was inaccurate in addressing this claim, which it was not.

    Neither our staff employment agreements nor our volunteer agreements contain a non-disparagement clause. Only our agreements with contractors have that clause, which is why only [the aforementioned staff member/consultant] was ever a party to such an agreement (before immediately violating it). [The former staff member] continues to falsely claim that our campaign is trying to silence people, both by mischaracterizing the distinctions among these agreements, and also by mounting accusations towards current staff, mischaracterizing on Twitter benign routine campaign emails offering guidance to current staff on how to respond to potential press inquiries.
  • The Intercept’s July 23 article presents only sources who had negative claims about Shahid’s management style. It conspicuously omits every one of the voices who eagerly came forward to share opposing views, including reflections from many supporters on the primary campaign staff poised to validate and help explain the decision to hire a new team for the general election.
  • We offered numerous sources—including tweets from some former staff quoted by The Intercept—that indicate they never perceived or discussed Shahid’s behavior as gendered until after they stumbled across Liz Croydon. This suggests that there was an effort by a small number of former staff to engage others in group think and promote an impression of events different than first perceived.We also offered two current staff members to speak with you, both women who were recently encouraged to join the campaign by former staff quoted by the Intercept, who never suggested any experience with misogyny or harassment despite frank private conversations that did emphasize the former staff’s adamant strategic differences with the candidate. The women currently involved in the campaign, many of whom are survivors, did their homework about the candidate before joining—and never did any claims of misogyny or harassment come up, nor have they encountered any of the behavior claimed by former staff.Ms. Lacy interviewed a small group of disgruntled former staff members from the campaign, took their words at face value, declined to include contrary reflections from interviews conducted with other current or former staff, as well as multiple volunteers who were offered, who have given a contrary picture, and who have bullied (in at least one instance, into public silence) by former staff quoted by the Intercept. We have given names of several who would speak on the record.

    Patricia Brooks and Gloria Berry, both survivors, have been outspoken and eager to come forward on the record in regard to this topic. Others, including a gender non-confirming volunteer who worked more closely on the campaign than most of the sources quoted by the Intercept, have affirmatively rejected the claims of former staff and ratified Shahid’s characterization of their frustrations as rooted in strategic differences and recurring staff performance failures, rather than misogyny.

  • An apology letter that Shahid sent to the staff to address tensions that he saw emerge was weaponized against him, used to support the allegation that his behavior was gender-based. If anything, the email demonstrates that he is not the character contrived by the former staff. The mischaracterization of that email exchange is yet another example of how the Intercept wove together many exaggerated elements to illustrate an ultimately false narrative.
  • The Intercept failed to check facts erroneously reported in earlier stories previous to Ms. Lacy’s article. Mission Local published an article on July 21 stating that “Cochran recalls his female colleagues needing to gather ‘three or four men’ to have their ideas taken seriously by the candidate,” which is obviously false both since we didn’t have that many men on the campaign team at the time, and because Patrick wasn’t in senior meetings reflecting tension with [a former senior staff member] & Emily.
  • This story is not about staff coming together to independently corroborate each other’s stories. This story was placed in a coordinated, organized, sophisticated fashion by professional campaign operatives with a demonstrable interest in the result. While we can’t document any involvement of the institutional establishment in organizing the smear campaign, at least one possible interest of professional staff in building a false narrative is clear: currying favor with local “progressive” establishment figures who align themselves with Speaker Pelosi and the Democratic Party.
  • The narrative contrived by former staff with The Intercept’s support suggests that former staff were aggrieved employees organizing to challenge an oppressive boss making a high salary, when the reality was in fact quite different. The candidate is an immigrant grassroots candidate, who owns no property of any kind  and remains saddled with student loan debt from law school,  running outside the city’s progressive establishment, which remains largely beholden to the incumbent, and from which the former campaign staff were recruited. Their interest in constructing a false narrative to defend the existing progressive power structure in San Francisco—and its continuing deference to Speaker Pelosi—is fairly obvious, yet uncritically ignored by the Intercept, whose original article effectively settles for stenography.
  • As to the salary claims, Shahid earns the equivalent of his non-profit salary when he left his job at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. It places him at the 55th local percentile (barely above the local median), and reflects a ratio of less than 2:1 between the highest and least compensated full-time employees. Campaign staff have agreed in subsequent public interviews that they were generously compensated while working on the campaign.
  • The original story does not reference even a single incident beyond the March 7 meeting, only quotes about an alleged pattern lacking any specificity—precisely because the claims are based not in fact, but on an organized campaign to spread a false narrative, as confirmed by multiple people who have come forward after former staff attempted to recruit them. The importance of checking facts is basic journalism, and the failure to do so here led to an unethical and irresponsible result.
  • Members of his former PR firm quoted by the Intercept were at the March meeting described in the Intercept, and particularly demonstrate Shahid’s point about the campaign’s performance objectively accelerating since the departure of former staff & contractors. Since he has been working with new PR consultant, a female volunteer with more experience including with the Bernie Sanders movement, the campaign has gotten vastly more expensive and better coverage. The article notes that the former PR firm dropped Buttar’s campaign, but the contract ended, and the campaign demonstrably benefited from the transition back to volunteers. It is worth noting that these claims started coming forward just after Buttar received national press coverage from a Black Lives Matter event where the idea of policing candidates of color on clothing and style was raised by other candidates running for office, including Cori Bush and Isiah James. Additionally, Buttar had just received coverage on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle when the allegations started to emerge. The volunteer can speak to how her input is always taken as a female working on the campaign.
  • Finally, and most alarming, is the unfortunate role of race apparent in the press coverage to date. First, contrast the experiences of Tara Reade and Liz Croydon. Ms. Reade came forward with various points of corroboration indicating sexual assault by a white man with substantial institutional power, and it took her months for the press to air her concerns. Liz Croydon alleged behavior that would not have constituted a crime of any kind even if true—which it was not—and was immediately presumed to be credible by multiple press outlets largely because the target of her accusation was both a brown man and a Muslim. The racial and religious tropes about misogyny among Muslim men played an inescapable role in this narrative being uncritically accepted and then irresponsibly amplified by The Intercept.
  • Beyond the institutional racism implicit in presumed guilt (by the press, and the local clubs), is a further reflection of 1.0 racism implicit in the texts with Patrick spreading the rumors concocted by Emily. There is nothing feminist about a white man encouraging a white woman to lie about an interaction with a brown man. The effort to convince her that something inappropriate happened is itself a revealing indication of falsity that any serious commitment to the truth requires observing.
  • Finally, most disappointing may be the institutional racism of press outlets—including the Intercept—ignoring the important voice of Gloria Berry. Gloria is an Afro-Latina grandmother, Navy veteran, and elected member of the Democratic County  Central Committee, and has publicly noted on several occasions that she was approached by former staff and encouraged to participate in their effort. There is no voice in the city with greater legitimacy to speak on behalf of the grassroots movement that she & Shahid both represent, yet the press has refused to share her voice. She declined to participate in the campaign organized by former staff, and then observed inconsistencies between the stories told by former staff during the time they were coordinating with Liz Croydon and the account that she eventually published. Finally, she observe the campaign staff’s performance failures as a volunteer supporting the campaign, and is poised to address the root of the concerns described by the former staff in gendered terms. These inconsistencies, as well as her first-hand perspective, are critically relevant to the truth—but even though she left a voicemail for Akela Lacy on July 22, she wasn’t interviewed until many weeks later, and her voice was never included, quoted, or even referenced in the revised story. Her voices was claimed irrelevant. She was also among the many voices of campaign supporters bullied by former staff, but her (and their) voices remain overlooked.

We hope you urgently correct the piece that has run. The Intercept’s article played a critical role in spreading a demonstrably false narrative about Shahid aimed to undermine his historic candidacy, and continues to reflect a host of inaccuracies. Please let us know if there is any information that we can provide.