Mother Jones and Mitch McConnell: Assessing the charges

(Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Republicans aren’t pleased with this week’s wave of publicity on Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate’s top Republican and a candidate for reelection in 2014. Mother Jones magazine on Tuesday published a tape and a transcript of a Feb. 2 McConnell campaign strategy session in which operatives can be heard plotting a potential attack on the mental and emotional health of prospective opponent Ashley Judd. A poll by Public Policy Polling on Tuesday showed the senator’s approval rating was in trouble. And the Senate Majority PAC on Tuesday launched Beltway Mitch, “an online campaign highlighting Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s distinguished record of putting Washington’s interests above Kentucky’s.”

That’s a lot of Tuesday McConnell stuff.

Yesterday, a Louisville, Ky., radio station reported an allegation that the recording published by Mother Jones was the work of the “Progress Kentucky” super PAC, which, in its own words, is “for all people who have been left behind by Senator Mitch McConnell and want progress for Kentucky.”

Mother Jones Washington Bureau Chief David Corn yesterday declined to comment on whether Progress Kentucky was the source of its tape but reiterated a previous statement that the magazine hadn’t helped to make the tape.

As the Mother Jones-Progress Kentucky story was swirling yesterday afternoon, a Republican operative pitched the Erik Wemple Blog on an emerging angle to the story: On Jan. 9, Mother Jones ran a story by reporter Andy Kroll titled “Revealed: The Massive New Liberal Plan to Remake American Politics.” Here’s what it described:

A month after President Barack Obama won reelection, top brass from three dozen of the most powerful groups in liberal politics met at the headquarters of the National Education Association (NEA), a few blocks north of the White House. Brought together by the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Communication Workers of America (CWA), and the NAACP, the meeting was invite-only and off-the-record.

The Erik Wemple Blog’s Republican operative source wished to highlight three things about that Mother Jones story: 1) It reported that Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) attended the session — the same group that just filed an ethics complaint in light of the Mother Jones story about the Feb. 2 McConnell strategy session; 2) The story revealed that a “non-editorial employee of Mother Jones” attended the liberal confab; and 3) the liberal supergroup saw McConnell’s Kentucky race as key to its agenda.

That is, indeed, a smelly jumble of proximities. Let’s unpack.  (Disclosure: My wife works for Mother Jones).

For starters, it’s no wonder that a liberal coalition would target McConnell. He is, after all, the Senate’s leading Republican and a pretty partisan fellow to boot. Says Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW and an attendee at the meeting: “I remember talk about the filibuster and discussion of campaign finance issues. But it’s not like this was a day about how to go after Mitch McConnell,” she says. For middlers, it’s no wonder that CREW would file an ethics complaint based on the Mother Jones tape of the McConnell brainstorming session. For enders, though, what on earth is a “non-editorial employee of Mother Jones” doing in a meeting of advocacy groups figuring out “what to do to beat back the deep-pocketed conservative movement“?

Observing, says Mother Jones.

That non-editorial employee in question was Mother Jones Publisher Steve Katz, says Clara Jeffery, the magazine’s co-editor. From Jeffery: “Andy [Kroll] wrote about the event as part of his campaign finance beat. He talked to the organizers — all quite happy to go on the record — about what transpired, and one mentioned that our publisher, Steve Katz, had attended as an observer, a fact Andy then disclosed in the story.”

The attendance of the non-editorial employee at the liberal confab, suggests Jeffery, complies with the industry’s best practices:

Steve attended to learn what these groups were planning for the stretch ahead. Just like at the Post, business-side folks here keep their activities and conversations independent from the editorial side, and vice versa. Similarly, just as at the Post, we do not coordinate our reporting with any outside organization.

The Erik Wemple Blog thereupon asked Jeffery, in effect, hold on a second: If The Post’s publisher attended a meeting of a group of motivated political actors of any persuasion, there’d be a ruckus. Why is it okay for Mother Jones? “Again, Steve was there as an observer, just as he might attend any number of other meetings, panels and conferences from Netroots to policy breakfasts.”

Mother Jones is an openly liberal publication, so it’s not a surprise that if the publisher is going to attend some big political meeting, it’d be a left-leaning big political meeting. Perhaps there are powerful motives for Katz to “observe” the goings-on. Publishers, after all, have to look after their publication’s financial health, and a big Washington get-together could be a good spot to schmooze advertisers and donors (Mother Jones is a nonprofit news organization).

The risks, though, are perhaps more compelling. By sitting with political actors, Katz casts an impression and or a reality that won’t advance the organization’s goals — that they’re a group of activists, not journalists. That they’re carrying water for their allies, with whom they scheme in “invite-only and off-the-record” meetings.

Whatever is happening here, there’s one person who wants to stand up and refute any notion of a liberal advocacy-journalism conspiracy to knock down McConnell on a Tuesday in April. Tom Jensen is the director of Public Policy Polling. The timing of his outfit’s McConnell poll, he says, was dictated by an online survey; the group asked its fans what state they wanted to see polled, and Kentucky won. “I’ve never had any contacts with David Corn in my life,” says Jensen, who would have preferred that his McConnell poll hadn’t hit the same news cycle as the Mother Jones stuff: “The poll got completely overshadowed by the [Mother Jones] tape. I saw very few people talking about the poll on Tuesday because they were talking about the tape,” he says.

Corn had this to say: “This is tin-foil stuff. I had no knowledge that these other developments were afoot. There was no contact, no conversations and no coordination. We are journalists and do not coordinate our coverage with partisan outfits.”

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