February 22, 2013
Mitt Romney
Mitt Romney (Elaine Thompson / AP)

In this year’s batch of George Polk Awards, David Corn of Mother Jones took a big one — the prize for political reporting. The accolade commemorates the political shock that Corn touched off when he published the famous video of Mitt Romney at a “private” fundraiser in Boca Raton, Fla. Among many newsworthy remarks on the recording, Romney charged that “47 percent” of Americans are dependent on government and would vote for President Obama “no matter what.”

A Polk press release credits Corn for “persistent digging and careful negotiation with a source” in pursuit of the scoop.

None of this impresses Stuart Stevens, a top official with Romney’s campaign. “Is this journalism or oppo research?” asked Stevens in a discussion yesterday with the Erik Wemple Blog. “There’s not really any reporting involved in this. It’s a long way from ‘All the President’s Men.’ … Had there been a like moment in a campaign that uncovered a tape by the president, would they be giving an award to that person? Hard to imagine,” he says.

Let’s give Corn a shot at rebuttal: “I almost have empathy for Stuart Stevens. It must be very frustrating to have so poorly managed the response to the 47 percent video while poorly managing an entire presidential campaign,” says Corn. (Disclosure: My wife works for Mother Jones.)

Polk Awards Curator John Darnton on the oppo-research slight: “That’s silly.”

That the video had impact is not up for debate. President Obama, for one, is reportedly very thankful that it surfaced.

That the video is the result of journalistic “digging” merits some inspection. Darnton says that Corn recognized that the story would be a humdinger. With the help of researcher James Carter — grandson of this country’s 39th president — Corn “was able to track [the video] to its source, talk and convince the source to let him go public with it,” says Darnton — not to mention re-release it “so you could actually see what’s going on.”

“Digging” is precisely what led up to the scoop, says Corn himself. He’d been working some stories about Romney’s overseas investments and got some leads from Carter, who eventually stumbled upon some interesting video and snooped around for the source of the footage. Here’s how James Carter described the events to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer:

I had been doing regular searches. I’m a researcher. So I had been researching videos and making sure that I knew all the videos that were being posted online about Romney and some other Republicans. And I found a video that had just a piece of what ended up being the 68-minute video. And I tracked down the person who had made it, who goes by “Anonymous,” and I introduced “Anonymous” to David Corn and that’s how it got out.

“Anonymous,” says Corn, was familiar with his work and willing to talk. “So, I don’t know — I’ll let other people decide whether this was digging or not. I had been digging into Mitt Romney’s investments, breaking stories that nobody else had.”

The Polk Awards archive doesn’t exactly overflow with honorees who finagle a video, post it and change the world. Previous winners in the political and foreign reporting categories, for instance, include a monster series by then-Washington Post reporters Barton Gellman and Jo Becker on Vice President Cheney; reporting by the High Country News on “referendum campaigns against land-use regulations in six Western states”; a New York Times series by David Rohde on his “seven-month ordeal as a prisoner of the Taliban” — stuff like that.

Asked if Polk has recognized anything like Corn’s vid-scoop before, Darnton notes that in 2010, the honor in the category of videography went to “the anonymous individuals responsible for recording the shooting death of 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan at a June protest in Tehran, Iran, and uploading the video to the Internet. The video became a rallying point for the reformist opposition in Iran,” according to the Polk tribute.

That said, Polk’s Darnton sees some novel aspects of the award. “It’s not as if it’s a totally new kind of reporting,” he says. “The only difference is that it involves video. I’d like to think we’re moving with the times faster than other prizes, and we recognize there’s going to be a new world of video online and tweets that are increasingly a factor in news distribution.”

Does that mean that we could see a Polk awarded for tweeting sometime soon? “At this point, no — it would have to be a hell of a tweet,” he says.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.