Since posting footage of Mitt Romney rejecting "47 percent" of the American electorate as tax-dodging freeloaders, Mother Jones magazine has been basking in the limelight of pulling off the biggest scoop in this year's presidential race, besting Internet-era giant the Huffington Post.
How did that happen?
The non-profit magazine more commonly associated with graying 1960s radicals doggedly tracked down over Twitter and email the anonymous videographer at a Romney fundraiser. Armed with the credibility of its Washington bureau chief David Corn, Mother Jones nailed the story.
“It validates that we are a force to be reckoned with in this space,” Monika Bauerlein, editor-in-chief at Mother Jones, told TheWrap. “In this particular news cycle, it’s fair to say we came out on top.”
Ryan Grim, a disappointed Huffington Post reporter who was chasing the same lead, told TheWrap: "I'm happy for them, they're a great outlet. But you always want to win."
The scoop has announced Mother Jones as a major force in web-based political journalism. After posting the video Monday, more than 2 million visitors went to the magazine's website in the first 12 hours. That’s roughly the number of unique views it usually logs in a month, the magazine said.
Romney quickly backpedalled on the his statements in the video, claiming he was discussing campaign strategy and not his "vision for the country." But the latest polling data from the Pew Research Center has the Republican candidate trailing President Obama by eight points.
And at least five Republican candidates in the midst of their own races, including Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown and New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, distanced themselves from Romney's remarks.
Back at Mother Jones, Corn, who was hired away from the Nation in 2007, was told about the video in late August by James Carter IV, a political researcher and the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter. Carter first found a segment on YouTube and suggested that the source may have a longer cut.
He tracked down the filmmaker through a series of private tweets and emails, assuring him anonymity if he turned over the video, Bauerlein said.
Encouraged by a story Corn had published months earlier — in which he revealed that a Chinese company profited from outsourcing that was sanctioned by Romney's former private equity firm Bain Capital — Carter persuaded the source to leak the video to Mother Jones.
But having the footage in hand wasn't enough.
"Once we did have the full recording, we did not rush to put it out," Bauerlein said.
It took weeks for the magazine's political team, who had been aggressively covering the 2012 presidential campaign, to verify and contextualize the quotes. Without the background, Bauerlein said Mother Jones would not have been comfortable in publishing the story.
The source reportedly feared legal reprisal from the wealthy donors recorded at the Romney fund-raiser in Florida, a state that prohibits recording without consent.
Carter had also notified the Huffington Post about the possibility of a longer video, sparking a race to obtain and verify the footage, then break the news.
Huffington Post's Ryan Grim told TheWrap that he was messaging intermittently with the source, who eventually "went dark" in early September. Grim said he was disappointed to lose the scoop, despite posting a snippet of the video on HuffPo's site first.
"We were in contact with him but — maybe it was a mistake, in hindsight — didn't aggressively push that out because we didn't have the whole video," he told TheWrap.
More important than bragging rights for the nonprofit magazine has been the monster web traffic and increased media buzz the posting has generated.
“It gives them life for another 20 years,” Robert Scheer, editor-in-chief of Truthdig and a veteran political journalist, told TheWrap. “It’s big for them in terms of standing and fund-raising.”
Even in an age where the vast web of blogs and aggregators has diminished the importance of being first with a story, news veterans say that the Mother Jones exclusive still represents a rare cocktail of stickiness and prestige. Try as they might, sites can’t match the impact of Romney sounding forth on the failures of the “entitlement state” by simply rushing to confirm the news or finding a press release.
“This is not a case of being first, it’s a case of being unique,” Marc Cooper, director of USC Annenberg’s digital news program, told TheWrap. “If an airplane blows up, you can be first with it, but eventually everyone is going to get it. In this case nobody would have gotten the video unless Mother Jones hadn’t gotten it first.”
The viral story also justifies Mother Jones’ decision to beef up its political coverage and investigative journalism a move that kicked off when they hired Corn from The Nation to launch a Washington bureau.
“It was basically a big play on our part to turn Mother Jones, which was a nice but entirely print-based news organization, into a news cycle player,” Bauerlein said. “We made a big bet on investing in staff for investigative reporting.”
The bureau started with a staff of two and today has 11 reporters. Bauerlein said that Mother Jones raised the bulk of the $1 million a year it spends on the D.C. staff from foundation support and individual donations, as well as advertising sales.
Though the magazine had done good journalism in the past, reporters and analysts say it was overshadowed by the competition and its unapologetically left-wing viewpoint.
Under Corn, Mother Jones has transformed itself from a magazine best known for reporting on environmental issues to an increasingly must-read source of Beltway news. Though it’s had scoops before — such as breaking news that 2008 's Republican presidential nominee John McCain was "fine" with staying in Iraq for 100 years — the Romney video could complete the metamorphosis.
“It puts them on the map in the way they haven’t been,” said Thomas Edsall, a professor at Columbia University’s School of Journalism and a former political reporter for the Washington Post. “This is a real news story and David Corn deserves the credit.
It also helps with fundraising, something that keeps the lights on at Mother Jones. It’s no accident that Corn sent out a letter to potential donors Wednesday morning touting the Romney exclusive and asking them to reach into their wallets and pocketbooks to support Mother Jones.
The embarrassment to the Romney campaign must have delighted many of Mother Jones’ progressive readers, but Bauerlein insists the publication would have worked just as aggressively had the video been of President Barack Obama.
She also claims that there is no additional footage waiting to drop, despite reports on conservative watchdog sites that claim the magazine edited two minutes of crucial footage out of the film.
Bauerlein said the source of the video told Corn that two minutes went unrecorded when the camera turned off as he tried to furtively frame the shot.
“The story now pivots to the fallout from the recording of this video — how do the campaigns deal with it going forward and how do the voters deal with it going forward,” she said.