As 2012 draws to a close, many year-end reviews of the election season have focused on September 17, the day Mother Jones released the 47-percent video that captured Mitt Romney at a private fundraiser. That moment, when millions of Americans saw the candidate denigrating nearly half the electorate as "victims" who do not take "personal responsibility and care for their lives," is widely seen as having upended the campaign. But the path to the scoop began months earlier, with a story about aborted fetuses.
Early on in the election season, Mother Jones
had made a decision to look closely at Mitt Romney's record as a businessman—a record the campaign was promoting as a key reason why voters should choose him. As I dug into the history of Bain Capital, the private equity firm Romney had founded and managed, I found out about an investment it had made in Stericycle, a medical-waste disposal firm that in more recent years had been attacked by anti-abortion groups for disposing of aborted fetuses from family planning clinics. I obtained an electronic pile of documents related to the deal, including filings Bain had made with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Romney was listed as an active participant in the Stericycle investment, which occurred in November 1999. This fact was significant; it undercut the claim that Romney had departed Bain in early 1999 to run the Winter Olympics, and had nothing to do with the firm's actions after that point, including investments that relocated American jobs.
On July 2, I posted a story on the candidate's connection to Stericyle, reporting that Bain had filed SEC documents—including one signed by Romney—designating Romney as an active participant in the deal in late 1999. The story made news, and soon other outlets followed up.
A few days later, I received an email from James Carter, a freelance researcher who had information to share. (He didn't mention he was the grandson of President Jimmy Carter and possessed a deep personal motive for unearthing material on Romney, who routinely disparaged his grandfather. I wouldn't learn of his relationship to the former president until early September, when Carter and I met at the Democratic convention in Charlotte.) Carter tipped me off to documents about a Bain affiliate's investment in a Chinese firm named Global-Tech Appliances, which outsourced manufacturing for US corporations including Sunbeam and Hamilton Beach. The Global-Tech deal had occurred before Romney left Bain for the Winter Olympics.
I investigated further and broke the story on July 11.
On the campaign trail in February, I noted, Romney had proclaimed, "We will not let China continue to steal jobs from the United States of America." Years earlier, though, he had bet on outsourcing.
There were thousands of pages of SEC documents to review. I discovered that a Bain affiliate wholly owned by Romney had invested tens of millions of dollars in a pair of companies that pioneered the outsourcing of high-tech manufacturing to Mexico, China, and elsewhere. These investments had originated before Romney left Bain for Utah.
A.O. said the video would be sent via regular mail from a city other than where he lived. He said he was entrusting me with it because of my work on Romney's years at Bain.
On August 24, days before the Republican convention was to begin, Carter sent me a link to a YouTube video. It seemed to show Mitt Romney talking about a trip he had taken to China to buy a factory. Romney noted that the facility employed thousands of young women working long hours each day for "a pittance" and living "twelve girls per room." The factory had fences and guard towers—not to keep the workers in, he was told, but to prevent job-seekers from sneaking in and joining the work force. For Romney, the point was not the harsh conditions faced by the Chinese workers but the wonders of the United States. He went on: "The Bain partner I was with turned to me and said, 'You know, 95 percent of life is settled if you are born in America. This is an amazing land.'" A title at the end of the clip said it had been recorded at a $50,000-a-plate fundraiser, but there was no information about when or precisely where, or who had shot and posted the video.
The clip had been knocking around in the Internet for several months. Someone using the handle RomneyExposed had uploaded it along with a few other snippets that seemed to come from the same event. The images were disguised; these clips were essentially audio files and impossible to verify. The China remarks had also been posted on a fake YouTube account under the name of Rachel Maddow; the MSNBC host asked YouTube to shut down this channel, but she did link to the video on her website. After that, every so often a blogger would rediscover this clip, and in late August, someone posted it in both the HuffingtonPost comments section and on the liberal Daily Kos website. Yet its origins remained a mystery: Carter told me he'd found it through a simple YouTube search and didn't know anything else about it. At my urging, he started digging.
On August 27—the day before the Republican convention was to open—a new YouTube account set up by "Anne Onymous" uploaded some of the clips. Carter discovered that this channel was linked to a Twitter account and sent the owner a private message. He didn't learn the person's identity nor any more detail about the China video, but informed me that the source "would like to get in touch with you."
After a series of messages back and forth, "Anne Onymous" agreed to send me the entire video recording of this Romney fundraiser. He noted that the video was about an hour long, but he would not say where or when it had been shot. He asked that it not be released in any version that would show the faces of others in the room.
I told A.O. that I would not use any of the footage without consulting him, for it was clear that he wanted to preserve his anonymity. I emailed Carter, "I have made contact and am working something out. Will keep you posted."
For several days, the source and I went back and forth. The file was too large to email. A.O. offered to ship it via overnight mail on Monday, September 3. I asked if he would send it through a file-transfer website. Yes, he said. But a few hours later, he seemed to be having second thoughts. I worried that he'd disappear.
I emphasized, as I had throughout, that I would handle the story responsibly and would not reveal his identity. He proposed obscuring the video so no one but Romney would be recognizable before sharing it with me. His aim was to keep the focus on the candidate's words, not the location of the event or the guests.
I suggested A.O. let me view the video and then we would discuss what to do. Nothing, I said, would be done with the video without his approval.
In Charlotte, while covering the Democratic convention, I counted the hours as my colleagues in DC lay in wait for the mailman each afternoon.
That was finally good enough for him: A.O. told me the video would be sent via regular first-class mail from a city other than where he lived. It should arrive, he said, in several days. He said that he was entrusting me with it because of my previous work on Romney's years at Bain.
In Charlotte, while covering the Democratic convention, I counted the hours as my colleagues in DC lay in wait for the mailman each afternoon. I maintained contact with A.O, who told me what to look for on the video: Romney impersonating Henry Kissinger, Romney saying that Palestinians didn't want peace in the Middle East, and Romney declaring that 47 percent of Americans believe they are entitled to food, healthcare, and housing.
The package arrived on September 10. I was back from Charlotte and watched it immediately. There was Romney standing and speaking to a small group of people eating dinner. The point of view suggested that a recording device had been placed on a table to the side. (A.O. had not told me what equipment had been used or how the recording had been made.)
In the opening minutes, Romney was serving up the usual chitchat about his family and his deep concern for the nation's future. He cracked a joke about his father: "Had he been born of Mexican parents, I'd have a better shot at winning this." The audience laughed.