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How ‘Mother Jones’ Turned Itself Into an Online ‘Secret Tape’ Factory


How ‘Mother Jones’ Turned Itself Into an Online ‘Secret Tape’ Factory

Courtesy Mother Jones

First there was the hidden video of Mitt Romney criticizing the 47 percent. Next came the surreptitious recording of Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) aides mocking Ashley Judd. And then, on the morning of April 25, Mother Jones completed the hat trick, publishing a secret video of GOP consultant Frank Luntz calling Rush Limbaugh “really problematic” for the Republican party.

How did Mother Jones position itself as the go-to destination for secretive political recordings?

“We bought an ad in the Super Bowl asking people to send us their tapes,” says Washington Bureau Chief David Corn. “Just joking. My hunch is that this is the sort of thing that becomes self-reinforcing. The more we do this, the more it becomes seen as one of the many things that Mother Jones does.”

The website for Mother Jones, like a lot of news sites these days, has an area soliciting tips from would-be sources. “Got a scoop?” it reads. “Send our team of investigative reporters a note.”

The “47 percent” video did not come through the tip box. (You can read the full back story here). But its publication, says Corn, has since resulted in a slew of new material coming through the magazine’s website. “In the last few months there’s certainly been an uptick in the e-mails to the Scoop Box,” says Corn. “That brings in a steady stream, several of which have been tapes.”

Many of the submitted tapes have been unusable. “There have been a couple tapes, or recording-type stories, that people have contacted us about that I haven’t been able to turn into stories,” says Corn. “That’s either because I couldn’t fully attain access to the video, or I couldn’t confirm what it was suspected to be.”

This week’s video—in which GOP consultant Luntz explains to a group of University of Pennsylvania students his theory on how talk-radio power brokers Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin are hurting the Republican party—first came to Mother Jones’s attention through the website. The tip came from Aakash Abbi, an undergraduate, who recorded Luntz’s off-the-record remarks on his iPhone. Why did Abbi reach out to Mother Jones?

Reached via Facebook (FB), Abbi explains that he is not a Mother Jones subscriber. He first heard of the publication because of the Romney video. According to Abbi, after he recorded Luntz, he reached out to a number of news organizations, including ThinkProgress. “Mother Jones was honestly just one of the first organizations to come to mind, admittedly because of their breaking of Mitt Romney’s 47% video,” Abbi writes.

Mother Jones was the first to respond. “We monitor the Scoop Box rather assiduously,” says Corn. “I quickly sent him a note back and said, ‘What do you have?’ We worked it out from there.”

Mother Jones is a nonprofit news organization supported by subscriptions, advertising, and donations. Some observers recently have questioned the inflated news value of the secret-tape genre. “I just wonder if the ‘secrecy’ sauce, like the overuse of anonymity in D.C. politics stories, leads people to overrate certain information,” David Weigel writes in Slate.

Corn says the tapes are good for business. “The more traffic you get, the more recognition you get, the more tips you get, the more mentions in the media you get, the more satisfaction people who support the magazine get, the more donations you get, the more reporters you can hire,” he says. “In days gone by, only a couple of media outlets would be able to use material like this and be able to present a story in this fashion. What we showed with the ‘47 percent’ tape is that we can make that story go as big as anybody. It’s hard to imagine that story being any bigger if the Washington Post, or the New York Times or CBS News has broken that story first. We’ve demonstrated that we’re open to this and we can do a good job.”

Gillette_190
Gillette is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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