And just like that, Corn and Mother Jones had their second major bombshell in seven months. The first, of course, was one of the most consequential scoops of the presidential campaign — a leaked video recording of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney saying at a small fundraiser last May that “47 percent” of voters were “dependent” on the government. (Corn will receive the prestigious Polk Award for Political Reporting for the Romney story on Thursday.)
Corn, 54, says the two career-making stories might have been linked. He guesses that his source on the McConnell recording — whom he won’t reveal — came to him because of the way he handled the Romney recording and the firestorm it ignited. But that’s just speculation: “I literally don’t know why” the source came to him, he says. “I didn’t ask.”
Corn and Mother Jones, a liberal-leaning nonprofit magazine based in San Francisco, never revealed who gave them the Romney video or how it was shot. The leaker, a bartender at the Romney fundraiser named Scott Prouty, outed himself in an MSNBC interview last month. Prouty, in turn, said he felt comfortable with Corn because of his earlier work for Mother Jones, especially his articles about outsourcing.
Indeed, in the wake of the Romney revelation, Corn has received a mini-flood of would-be audio and video leaks about Washington figures. Some of these have looked promising, but none have become public — yet. Corn said he hasn’t been able to vet them to his satisfaction or work out terms for making them public. He has “passed” on several of the offers for a variety of reasons.
Not so of the McConnell recording, which Corn said he received two weeks ago. He spent several days authenticating it, ensuring that it wasn’t faked, doctored or taken out of context. He tried to get a response from McConnell’s camp a day before publication but received nothing. Despite this, Corn said, he felt certain that he had the real deal the night before MoJo posted his story and the recording online. “There’s no such thing as being 100 percent about [digital media] these days,” he said, “but I slept very easily the night before.”
Despite ample criticism, including from McConnell, that the audio recording is an invasion of privacy, Corn argues that its newsworthiness trumps those concerns. “I think voters and citizens have a tremendous right to know almost as much as possible of the elected officials who come before them and ask for their votes,” he said. “I think people can decide for themselves how outrageous [McConnell’s] behavior is, but it gives you a glimpse inside his campaign’s thinking.”
Corn, a lifelong journalist, grew up in the age of Watergate, and he has long been attracted to both the advocacy and investigative side of the profession. As an editor of his high school’s paper, he led a rambunctious crew of wannabe Woodwards and Bernsteins who were “constantly in some kind of dispute over disclosures about the school’s hiring practices [and] personnel matters,” recalls David Sanger, a veteran New York Times reporter who was a year behind Corn at White Plains (N.Y.) High.
“I never remember David obtaining a tape of something the principal said at a faculty meeting,” Sanger says, “but other than that, the David of [then] was exactly what he’s like now: passionate, innovative and always at the edge. The only thing he was missing then was the shock of white hair.”
While attending Brown University in Providence, R.I., Corn worked for an alternative paper in the city and took on Providence’s famously corrupt mayor, Buddy Cianci, a Republican-turned-independent. Corn says he considered it a compliment when Cianci, irritated by his stories, offered him a job in an effort to shut him up.
Corn is “a born contrarian,” says Philip Shenon, a college classmate who went on to become an author and longtime New York Times journalist. “All those years ago, I had a sense you could send him to a story, and he would bring back something no one else noticed. Some instance of injustice or hypocrisy, large or small. . . . He was meant to make trouble — and it really is a pleasure to watch him do it.”
Corn spent much of his career at the Nation, another liberal magazine, working both as an investigative reporter and an essayist-commentator. He’s never hidden his political sympathies; they are perhaps best spelled out in the title of his 2003 book: “The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception.”
“What’s wonderful about this story and ‘47 percent’ story is that no one needs to listen to me or any commentator to know what it means,” he said Wednesday. “It’s all there. It’s journalism verite. You can listen to it and come to your own conclusion. I would encourage people to come forward with more tapes.”