How Mother Jones Got That Story

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OCTOBER 10, 2012

How Mother Jones Got That Story

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There is very little in life that isn't worth 99 cents, so you should probably just go ahead and buy David Corn's new e-book, 47 Percent: Uncovering The Romney Video That Rocked The 2012 Election. But if you want to read a review instead ... well, I'll try to keep it short. Full disclosure: Corn is a friend of mine--though not a close enough friend, apparently, to dissuade me from spilling the good parts of his 39-page instabook.

Obviously 47 Percent is an exercise in self-aggrandizement. A few years ago that would have been a criticism, but in the current Hobbesian media marketplace it's a mere statement of fact. Journalists have to be extremely shameless to get any attention at all, and editors are constantly upbraiding reporters for not being shameless enough, particularly when you've got something really good (as the 47-percent scoop clearly is; the fact that I don't have to explain to you what it is indicates that it is, in fact, a pretty big deal). In today's news business, the only acceptable cause for shame is shame itself. I forever lash myself like a penitent for harboring a tiny-but-deplorable vestige of the stuff, and strive to conquer my (thankfully, dwindling) capacity for embarrassment. I don't wish to end my life like Tolstoy's Ivan Ilyich, realizing it was one long busted play because I never treated Charlie Rose's booker to lunch at the Monkey Bar.

No such fate awaits Corn. His 47-percent scoop, he informs us, was "arguably the most consequential story of the 2012 election to date and one of the most dramatic revelations in presidential campaign history." Indeed, until last week's presidential debate, a lot of smart people thought Romney's 47-percent gaffe had decided the election in President Obama's favor. But the insanely fast pace of e-books isn't quite fast enough to keep up with developments that undermine Corn's claim. Today the story is no longer 47 percentgate but Obama's dismal performance in the debate, which has given Romney a distressing (and, one hopes, temporary) bump in the polls. Remarkably--remember, this is a kind of book--Corn managed to squeeze in the debate at the end of 47 Percent. With more ingenuity than plausibility, he argues that it made his scoop "perhaps more consequential" because Romney's true victory was in getting people to forget it, while Obama's true defeat was in not bringing it up. "Though unmentioned in Denver," Corn writes hopefully, "Romney's 67-second-long 47 percent outburst could continue to undercut Romney's fundamental argument: I'm the white knight whom you can trust to rescue the economy for everyone. And after his lackluster debate performance, Obama might need it even more."

"How I Got That Story" narratives are seldom, alas, very gripping, and this one can't sustain even a 39-page book without a lot of padding in the form of commentary about Romney's performance before and after the Mother Jones revelations. I'd still say the book is worth skimming. But if you aren't up for that, 47 Percent certainly has enough useful narrative for me to fill a blog item. Here goes.

Mother Jones's scoop resulted from some leads that James Carter IV, grandson of the former president, brought to Corn in search of a job (Corn never mentions whether he got one; since the story's appearance Carter doesn't lack for offers). Funnily enough, Corn, who is one of the most tireless investigative reporters operating in Washington, didn't figure out the august lineage of his self-appointed legman (he's Chip's boy, another detail Corn leaves out--had to write this sucker in a hurry!) until they met face to face at the Democratic convention. They'd already been working together for several weeks.

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Initially the story Carter brought to Corn was Romney's hypocrisy on China, an evergreen that happens to front this morning's New York Times. Carter had seen a piece Corn posted on Mother Jones. Corn's article disproved the Romney campaign's claim that Romney had no direct involvement in a 1999 Bain deal to invest in a medical-waste company that, among other activities, disposed of aborted fetuses (!). Carter told Corn that Romney was also directly involved in a 1998 Bain deal that outsourced to China the building of appliances for Sunbeam, Hamilton Beach, Mr. Coffee, Proctor-Silex, Revlon, and Vidal Sassoon. Corn thanked Carter for the lead, verified an SEC document Carter passed on, and broke the story, giving Carter a research credit. Corn then followed up with a story about Romney's ownership of a Bain affiliate that was among the first U.S. companies to ship high-tech manufacturing overseas.

A few days before the Republican convention, Carter e-mailed Corn a link to a YouTube video showing Romney speaking at a fundraiser about buying a factory in China; it was the factory Carter had told Corn about. Rachel Maddow had already linked to the clip on her Web site, and so had a few others. "I want to know who got this and how," Corn told Carter. So Carter started rooting around and discovered that other clips from the same fundraiser had popped up on the Internet, too, and several of them were aggregated on a YouTube channel for one "Anne Onymous." Somehow Carter figured out--Corn doesn't say how-- that Anne Onymous was the video's source, and it turned out that Anne Onymous was on Twitter. Carter and Corn sent private tweets back and forth to A.O. and eventually he (Anne was apparently male) said he'd send the whole thing to Corn (by snail mail, of all things!), provided Corn protected his anonymity by not revealing which fundraiser this was.

For months, A.O., or possibly someone else, had been trying to interest what Corn calls "the political media" (I assume that means "mainstream media") in this video, "but the out-of-context and fuzzy videos had not been widely noticed." As is so often the case, the question isn't how one reporter got a great story but how so many others failed to get it when it was practically handed to them on a silver platter. Part of the problem was that A.O., or possibly someone else, didn't cotton to what the best material was. It wasn't the China stuff, or various other snippets that made their way onto the Web before Carter and Corn got wind of the video. It was the 47 percent bit. A.O. comes off in 47 Percent like some sort of idiot savant, aware that he was in possession of something red-hot without grasping exactly what it was. 

The video arrived at Mother Jones's Washington bureau immediately after the Democratic convention. "I kept watching," Corn writes, "wondering if I had merely a good story, not a great one." Then he saw Romney say that nearly half the population won't "take personal responsibility and care for their lives." The clouds parted and bright rays of sunshine burst through.

A close read of the complete video made clear that the fundraiser was one that occurred on May 17 at the home of Marc Leder, a private-equity tycoon. Still, Corn agreed, per A.O.'s wishes, not to release the whole video or say which fundraiser it was, and to blur the video so you couldn't see who besides Romney was in attendance. A.O. told Corn that the Huffington Post had asked him for the complete video, but that he wouldn't give it to them. Corn arranged via his onetime collaborator, Mike Isikoff of NBC News, for pickup by the Today show, and ran with the story the day after Rosh Hashanah. (Corn could have run it before but he needed time to have the video lawyered and checked for signs of tampering; plus, he didn't want it to fall into a holiday-weekend black hole.)

The response was, of course, huge, and for some reason A.O. immediately reversed himself and allowed Corn to report details about the fundraiser, to unblur the video, and to release the entire thing.

We never do find out in 47 Percent who Anne Onymous is. His initial jitteryness about the fundraiser being identifiable suggests he's a Republican mole who made the video himself. His subsequent indifference on the same point suggests he isn't (or possibly suggests he's just a flake). There's an Anne Onymous still on Twitter today, and David Corn and Ryan Grim (who chased the story for HuffPo) both follow him/her. Is he/she the same A.O. who fed Corn the video? The tweets predate release of Corn's story, which suggests it's our man, and a photograph matches that on an Anne Onymous YouTube channel created on Aug. 27, which is when Corn says his A.O. set up a YouTube channel. There's also a Google+ page. That one identifies A.O. as an 18 year-old girl who lives in Dongguan, China and works at Global-Tech, the Chinese firm that Bain invested in that Corn and Carter wrote about in July. That's pretty clearly misdirection on A.O's part.

Whoever A.O. is, he/she liked this Fred Kaplan piece posted yesterday on Slate, according to his/her probable Twitter feed. Presumably he will continue to hide in plain sight until election day. Anonymity ain't what it used to be, but who says it should be? Meanwhile, if A.O.'s got anything up his sleeve, now would be a pretty good time to drop it. Please send to timothynoah@tnr.com. I've already lined up a publisher for the e-book.

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posted in: timothy noah, politics, denver, denver, washington, washington, bain, twitter, youtube, china, anne onymous, barack obama, barack obama, david corn, ivan ilyich, james carter iv, mike isikoff, mitt romney, eastern europe, the plank

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