What Did David Corn Know, and When Did He Know It?

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Sept. 19 2012 12:10 PM

What Did David Corn Know, and When Did He Know It?

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David Corn, a political journalist and author, Chief of the Washington bureau for Mother Jones, who also appears regularly on a variety of television political talk shows, takes a few photos before the start of US President Barack Obama's second press conference since coming into office, inside the East Room of the White House March 24, 2009 in Washington. AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

Photo by PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

Today's conservative pushback on the Romney tapes has two prongs—two smoking guns. The first, a 1998 tape of Barack Obama talking about redistribution, has already been laughed away by my colleague Matthew Yglesias. The second is about the "full video" of the Romney comments, released by Mother Jones in two chunks yesterday. That controversy's explained here by Breitbart.com's Joel Pollak.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Late Tuesday evening, [blogger William] Jacobson obtained the following comment from David Corn of Mother Jones:
According to the source, the recording device inadvertently turned off. The source noticed this quickly and turned it back one [sic]. The source estimates that one to two minutes, maybe less, of recording was missed.
Corn was forced to update his original post, which promised the "full" video, to reflect the fact that a key portion of the video is, in fact, missing. 
There is no way to know, without the missing footage, exactly what Romney said. On Monday evening, Romney called for a complete video of his remarks to be released.
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And here we go—this turns the story from one about a bungling candidate caught on tape to one of that old saw, Liberal Media Bias and Double Standards. (That's two saws, I know.) "There is now reason to doubt that it provided Romney's full remarks—not just the context, but the remarks themselves. And there is new reason to suspect manipulation."

But manipulation by whom? Allow me to switch this from an exciting media bias debate to a boring question about sources.

David Corn did not attend the Romney fundraiser. Neither did his main source, someone named "Anne Anonymous. She obtained the video, and posted a clip of it that few people noticed. James Carter IV, a video researcher, contacted her, found her, and put her in touch with Corn.*

"We have released all we have," Corn tells me. "There is not a drop that's not public. The tape came to me in two files, as we put them on our website. The source explained, as we note on the website, that after 35 minutes or so, the camera timed out or turned off inadvertently (possibly because the source hit something; the source). The source is not sure what happened. But soon after, the source noticed it had turned off and restarted the recording device. The source estimates that one to two minutes elapsed in between, possibly less."

The question becomes: Why trust David Corn's word, and not trust the word of the conservative sting artists who never, ever get respect from the media? What's the difference between this and—let's pick an example I covered—James O'Keefe's sting of NPR?

The NPR sting of 2011 was conducted by two men working with O'Keefe's Project Veritas. (They've since fallen out with him.) They recorded the video themselves. Project Veritas produced an edited version -- with narration and more reporting—and released that. Simultaneously, they released a full video of the sting. In the edited video, the sting target, an NPR executive, gets a sentence that starts with "... think the current Republican party is not really the Republican Party." The full video, however revealed that the executive was referring to what other people thought: "A very highly placed Republican—another person, who was one of the top donors to the Republican party." The really damaging quote that ended the guy's career was 1) his paraphrase of someone else and 2) egged on by the undercover reporter.

The "Anne Anonymous" tape cuts out here.

What I have to do is convince the 5 to 10 percent in the center that are independents that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon in some cases emotion, whether they like the guy or not, what it looks like. I mean, when you ask those people…we do all these polls—I find it amazing—we poll all these people, see where you stand on the polls, but 45 percent of the people will go with a Republican, and 48 or 4…

The source claims that there was a problem with the camera and one or two minutes were lost. When it picks back up, Romney's answering a question about China. Is there something in the missing portion that makes Romney sound more genteel than he did in the other portion? Possibly, even though the attack on Romney isn't even focusing on the ramble at the end. Is Mother Jones at fault? At most, in the flurry of media attention that they've received over the tapes, the magazine oversold the "tape of everything we got" as the "complete tape," and there's a difference. That's probably enough to get a good, base-rallying campaign against Media Bias underway.

*Edited this section to tweak the history of the video's provenance.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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