David Corn ’81 has no shortage of opinions, and he’s happy to share them most days in his role as political commentator on MSNBC. But at heart, Corn, whose day job is Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones magazine, considers himself an old-fashioned reporter. His work may range from investigative reporting to political analysis, but, he says, “To me it’s all part of the same mission of illuminating reality.”
Last fall, Corn’s reporting sent the presidential race reeling. It was Corn who tracked down, verified, and released the devastating “47 percent” video made at a Florida fund-raiser in which Mitt Romney basically labeled as freeloaders Americans who don’t pay income tax. The story earned Corn the George Polk Award, one of journalism’s highest honors.
“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it,” Romney was caught saying. “My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
Corn had broken big stories before, but nothing like this. It had such an impact, he believes, because it was a window into the secretive world of political fund-raising. “We were able to show people a piece of reality that you don’t get to see unless you can cough up $50,000 a plate,” he says. “It was done in a way that was undeniable and required no interpretation or analysis. You don’t have to trust me. You don’t have to trust anonymous sources. You can watch it for yourself.”
How Corn got the video is a revealing story not only about intrepid reporting, but about the growing role of sites like YouTube and Twitter in journalism. In July, Corn had published a Mother Jones story showing that Bain Capital, Romney’s firm, had invested in a Chinese manufacturing company that took advantage of American outsourcing. He put the story together with the help of a freelance researcher named James Carter, whose grandfather just happens to be former President Jimmy Carter.
When the younger Carter found a snippet of a Romney speech on YouTube that seemed to center on the same company, he used Twitter to contact the person who’d posted it and put him in touch with Corn. That led to a lengthy negotiation over obtaining the full video and releasing it without disclosing the source’s identity. After weeks of back-and-forth, the source—a bartender named Scott Prouty, who would eventually go public—finally mailed it on a disk inside a “Thank You” card stamped “confidential.”
Prouty had told Corn that the video had several interesting sections, including one in which Romney contradicted his public position on Israel. As Corn played it in his office, he thought it was interesting but not earth-shattering. Then, about halfway through, he got to the part about the 47 percent.
“I thought I misheard,” he says. “I went back and played it again. And my jaw kind of dropped.”
A history major from White Plains, New York, Corn worked for the Brown Daily Herald and for a now defunct alternative paper called Fresh Fruit, which was published by the BDH but distributed well beyond campus. Corn cut his journalistic teeth on investigations into such things as corruption at the Roger Williams Park Zoo.
“For a 19-, 20-year-old, it was pretty cool. It was great training,” Corn says. “I loved the fact that the bucolic Brown campus was in the middle of this very gritty city with tremendous sort of ethnic legacies, and corrupt or quasi-corrupt politicians and an active mob, and diners literally on the wrong side of the tracks. As a young journalist there was a lot to observe on the margins of campus and beyond campus.”
Once, while Providence was in the middle of yet another fiscal crisis, he recalls, Mayor Buddy Cianci attended a campus newspaper party, put his arm around Corn, and offered him a job.
“Buddy, what about the hiring freeze?” Corn asked.
“There’s always room for one more,” Cianci responded.
Instead, Corn headed to New York City for an internship at the Nation and wound up taking a full-time editorial assistant job instead of returning to campus for his senior year. He earned his remaining credits at Columbia before receiving his Brown degree in 1982. He then went on to work at a number of publications and write or coauthor five books. He joined Mother Jones in 2007.
Proud grandpa Jimmy Carter has said he thinks the 47 percent story won the election for Obama, but Corn isn’t so sure. Nor, he insists, was that his intent. “I’ve worked for progressive publications for most of my life,” he says. “I don’t think it’s a surprise that I prefer to see someone more progressive than more conservative triumph in an electoral setting.” At the same time, he says he does not consider himself an Obama loyalist.
Corn always views himself as a reporter first. “Nothing makes me happier than when I break news that shapes an ongoing debate in our country. I mean, breaking news to me is still the killer app.”