Tevlin: Minnesotans were behind Mother Jones' video scoop

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 26, 2012 - 12:17 PM
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Mother Jones co-editors Monika Bauerlein , left, and Clara Jeffery fielded phone calls a day after the magazine released a secretly recorded video of Mitt Romney at a fundraising dinner in Florida.

Photo: Mark Murrmann, Mother Jones/zuma Press

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For the past week, the race for the presidency has been dominated by a fuzzy video from a private fundraiser in Florida for Mitt Romney. The video, in which he disparaged 47 percent of the population, underscored some of the main criticisms about the candidate and, at least for a few days, rocked his campaign.

The video surfaced in part due to the efforts of two journalists with Minnesota ties who have had a harried week being interviewed or attacked in outlets ranging from Fox News, the New York Times, "Nightline" and the Wall Street Journal.

Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery are co-editors of Mother Jones magazine, which under their care has become a must-read for political junkies and Washington, D.C., insiders.

Bauerlein is the former managing editor of City Pages. Jeffery graduated from Carleton College and later freelanced for Bauerlein.

After a small portion of the video appeared online, media outlets from across the country scrambled to get the original. But it was Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief David Corn, hired by Bauerlein and Jeffery five years ago, who got the scoop.

In the video, Romney says 47 percent of Americans 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, who later acknowledged his words were poorly chosen, added that it was not his role to worry about those people.

Romney is actually partially correct: 47 percent of Americans pay no federal tax.

"But what isn't correct is that the people who don't pay federal income tax are not the same people who don't vote for Mitt Romney," said Bauerlein. "The way he conflated those two things and went on to say these are people who are dependent on the government, who are reliant on handouts, who want the government to provide them with food, housing, health care -- it wasn't just an interesting factoid; it was dissing half the country as moochers."

Those numbers, Jeffery said, include people who work full time but just don't make enough money to pay federal taxes, as well as seniors on Social Security.

"For the family of four, earning the household income of under $50,000 whose house is now probably under water -- the last thing they need is to be called a moocher," said Jeffery.

MJ's Corn got the video because of other reporting he'd done, said the editors. And the source trusted that the magazine would not divulge his name. In Florida, it's illegal to videotape someone without their knowledge (it's not in Minnesota), but not illegal for a news outlet to receive such a tape.

Mother Jones launched the video and announced it on social media.

"You could literally watch it on Twitter," said Bauerlein. "There was five or ten minutes of, oh, this is interesting, then it basically dominated our Twitter feed and our page views went nuclear to the point by that evening where we had as much traffic as we normally do in a month. The video was inching into Bieber territory on YouTube."

For those aware of Bauerlein's work, it's funny to hear her name in the same sentence as Justin Bieber. Bauerlein left City Pages, where she was known as a smart and aggressive reporter, to be MJ's story editor in 2000.

Among her notable work from that time at City Pages was a breakout profile of Julie Quist, wife of current Republican First Congressional District candidate Allen Quist, and a dissection of the state bailout of Northwest Airlines. She also edited Jeffery's freelance story exposing sexual violence at Carleton, a piece that caused the national media to look closer at the issue of date rape.

Jeffery graduated from Carleton in 1989. She worked at Washington City Paper and was a senior editor at Harper's magazine.

Both have plenty of hardware to show for their journalism. In fact, MJ has won six National Magazine Awards, including two for general excellence, since the two have been co-editors.

After the video was released, however, Fox News called MJ "the magazine nobody reads."

"I dare say, Fox News was one of the first ones in our in box to ask for the video," snapped Bauerlein, who estimates more than 6 million people have seen the video.

Though the magazine leans decidedly left, Bauerlein and Jeffery said they have, and will, go after Democrats.

"Oh yes, we would have gone after a similar story about a Democrat just as hard," she said. "What matters to us is whether a story reveals something, not who looks bad. We pulled no punches, for example, in looking at the part Dems had in creating the conditions for the subprime crash."

So, if anyone has a scathing video they'd like put out, Mother Jones is taking calls.

Meanwhile, Bauerlein and Jeffery have a message for their Minnesota friends:

"Now you know why you haven't heard from us."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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