David Corn speaks at Kelly Writers House


Author of "47 percent" story questions fact-checking, truth in politics


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Photo by Thando Ally


Writing professor Dick Polman considers David Corn responsible for the “most defining and revealing moment of the campaign” this election season. And, on a day where he could have been at the first presidential debate in Denver, Corn, a political journalist, chose instead to speak at Penn.

A little less than two weeks ago, the Mother Jones magazine reporter rocked the polls by writing the now-infamous “47 percent” story that revealed presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s “off-the-cuff” comments about American voters at a private fundraiser.

Corn has since made appearances on several network political talk shows in the wake of his story.

His speech — “Campaign 2012: Are the Lies Winning?” — yesterday at Kelly Writers House, as part of the Povich Fund for Journalism Programs talk series, was particularly timely.

Corn discussed the role of a growing “fact-checking industry” in this year’s election. The number of fact-checking organizations have burgeoned since the exploits of the Bush administration in Iraq, after which the mainstream media was “up in arms” because they failed to sufficiently challenge the truth and instead “went along for the ride,” Corn said.

Fact-checking organizations, like Penn’s own FactCheck.org of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, rigorously scrutinize statements made by all parties’ campaigns and make their analysis available to the public.

But has it made a difference?

He cited a Romney campaign pollster at the Tampa convention in August as particularly expressive of what he sees as the press’ weakening grip on the politicians’ accountability. “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers,” the pollster said on the campaign trail.

Despite the increased efforts to hold campaigns accountable, Corn argued that other media trends have hedged most of the gains that have been won.

“[Now that the] media landscape is so widespread, all [the] institutions have a lot less sway than they once did,” he said, especially in contrast to the old days when just a few gate-keepers like Walter Cronkite held tremendous sway in the public eye. With so many news sources available from every kind of political spin, it’s very easy for people to hear what they want to hear, Corn added.

Sally Bronston, a College senior studying political science who attended the talk, echoed this sentiment afterward. “[Politicians] don’t have to care because their own base won’t report on those things,” she said.

Corn continued, even though “fact-checking is more vigorous than ever,” in the spirit of escalation, campaigns have kept up with their own “weaving and bobbing.”

Corn finished his talk on an optimistic note.

Quoting Mark Twain, he said that usually “a lie can get halfway around the world before truth has even put its boots on.” Fortunately, Corn said, as evidenced by the Romney fundraiser video he released, there are still instances in which good reporting can send the truth around even faster.

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