University News

Exclusive: David Corn ’81 discusses investigative reporting in Q&A

An alum who helped uncover footage of Mitt Romney shares insights on journalism and politics

By
University News Editor
Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Presidential campaigns are often most remembered for video clips or soundbytes that come to define candidates’ personas for voters.

During the 2012 campaign, Republican presidential nominee and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was plagued by a video of himself speaking at a private fundraiser about his belief that 47 percent of Americans were “dependent upon government” and paid no income taxes. The comment caused a flurry of negative coverage, and many political analysts have called the incident a pivotal moment of the election.

The reporter who helped bring this story to light, David Corn ’81, is the Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones magazine, an MSNBC commentator and a seasoned veteran of many national campaigns. The Herald recently talked with Corn about the 2012 campaign, investigative reporting and his time at Brown.

 

The Herald: You were instrumental in breaking the “47 percent” story about Mitt Romney. Can you talk about how exactly that news got revealed?

Corn: I’d spent weeks and weeks digging into Mitt Romney’s investments when he worked at Bain, and I’d done a series of stories on a subject that very few people had looked at, and I discovered that he’d been investing in companies that had been outsourcing jobs to countries with lower wages and lesser labor standards. Because I was doing that, I was always … chasing ledes, and I came across a video that was posted anonymously talking about a trip he made to a Chinese company that I thought was involved in some of these investments. … We eventually tracked down the original poster of that video. … He agreed to talk to me and send me the full video, which had no further information on his overseas investments but did have the 47 percent comment. So it was because I had been doing investigative reporting on a subject area that many reporters were ignoring that I was able to reach a position where I discovered that great scoop.

 

Some have said the revelation of that news — shortly after Romney had picked up some momentum from the first debate — was the key moment in the fall campaign and ended his chances of being elected. Do you agree?

It’s hard to tell because we don’t know what would have happened without the video. One thing to consider when thinking about the role of the 47 percent video … is the penetration and the length of the story. Pollsters for both the Obama campaign and the Romney campaign told me that all the independent voters — who often are low-information voters — whom they were talking to in focus groups knew about the 47 percent video and had an opinion of it. It became a water-cooler conversation topic that almost everyone knew about instantaneously. That doesn’t happen that often. Most importantly, it became part of a news cycle for a week or a week and a half. … What happened with the 47 percent video is that it really threw the Romney campaign off (its) game plan for a week and a half to two weeks. It sucked up a lot of (the campaign’s) energy, attention and perhaps most importantly, opportunity.

 

Much of political journalism today seems tied up in the world of 24/7 commentary on cable and fast-paced digital formats. As someone who’s worked for a long-established magazine but also for MSNBC, do you think this shift has been detrimental to high-quality reporting?

The information technology we’ve seen over the past 10 to 20 years and the impact on journalism is completely a double-edged sword. It’s given journalists like myself tremendous opportunities to expand our reach and to compete. Those of us who work for smaller outfits now can break stories, and, more importantly, win attention for those stories as much as anybody working for the New York Times or the Washington Post. …

But the cost of all this is that we live in a nanosecond by nanosecond news cycle where things come and go so fast that it’s difficult to have a deep and disciplined discussion about a matter. … Everybody’s sort of racing like chickens with their heads cut off to one story and then racing back. With the availability of 24/7 media, every little wrinkle or hiccup in any given story becomes completely magnified but often overly hyped and exaggerated. You see things like the IRS scandal or Benghazi. There’s so much chest-thumping and foot-stomping that happens immediately that gets a lot of attention because the media are working in real-time and the deeper story that may take a couple hours or even a day or two lags behind, and by then, the political contours of a story have already been established.

 

You may have heard about the Oct. 29 event on campus when a group of protestors interrupted New York City Police Department Commissioner Ray Kelly during a talk he was set to give, causing the talk to be cancelled. Were there any similar events where protestors shut down a talk during your days at Brown?

What was big when I was in school was the divestment movement in South Africa. Lots of students would protest or sit in to make a point that Brown as a societal leader should join the movement in making sure money was not invested in companies that were doing business with the apartheid regime in South Africa, a racist regime. … There might have been demonstrations that blocked entrance-ways or (disrupted) meetings, but I don’t remember anyone being fully shut down.

But I’m of two minds with these sorts of things. I like the idea of letting people talk, but then having as much protest around it and as much dialogue afterwards and during, because if you’re going to have a controversial speaker, I’d want to make sure you’d have time to challenge that speaker and have other views conveyed at the same time and at the same event. … If you can beat an opponent with an argument rather than silence them, you usually are going to end up better in the long run. But I fully understand the energy and commitment that goes into protest activity, civil disobedience and the like.

 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.