The PJ Tatler

Investigation: Why did David Corn Run with a False McConnell Tape Transcript?

Why did David Corn bother releasing the McConnell Tape, the recording in which staffers to the senator are heard strategizing about running against actress Ashley Judd? By the time the tape was released, Judd was no longer a candidate. Everyone who has ever worked on a campaign of any scale immediately knew after hearing the tape that the discussion it captured was typical of any brainstorming session on either side of the aisle, as candidate and staff determine their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses. The McConnell Tape was a nothingburger. Its release has, however, become a major problem for Progress Kentucky, the group believed to have recorded it, and maybe for Corn himself. The Federal Bureau of Investigations is on the case.

Yet despite its lack of sizzle, Corn ran with the tape as if he had a major blockbuster. Corn has been in the political news business a long time. He surely knew that nearly everything on the tape was a non-story, a conversation of the type common on campaigns. The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a complaint shortly after the tape’s release, amplified by the liberal Huffington Post, claiming that it provided evidence that Sen. McConnell has used official congressional staff to conduct opposition research on Judd (who, not to belabor the point, is no longer even a candidate and never officially was one).

The blockbuster that Corn believed he had was encapsulated in a few words: “thank them three times.” Those words are the basis of the CREW charge that McConnell has used legislative assistants or legislative aides (“LAs” on the tape) for political opposition research. Corn transcribes that passage as follows:

Presenter: So I’ll just preface my comments that this reflects the work of a lot of folks: Josh, Jesse, Phil Maxson, a lot of LAs, thank them three times, so this is a compilation of work, all the way through. The first person we’ll focus on…

But what if no one on the tape ever said those words in bold?

The Louisville Courier-Journal took the noisy 12-minute audio and cleaned it up to determine what the speaker actually says on the tape. The newspaper determined that the legislative aide did not say “thanked them three times,” but instead said “on their free time.” So the transcript should read:

Presenter: So I’ll just preface my comments that this reflects the work of a lot of folks: Josh, Jesse, Phil Maxson, a lot of LAs, on their free time, so this is a compilation of work, all the way through. The first person we’ll focus on…

The Weekly Standard’s Daniel Helper came to a similar conclusion. Those words make all the difference in the world. If the “thank them three times” interpretation is correct, then the phrase may be evidence backing up CREW’s complaint. But “on their free time” makes it clear that the work was not done on the taxpayer’s clock and therefore there is no basis for the complaint at all.

Corn says that he had the audio for two weeks before he released it into the wild, while he vetted it with lawyers. But did he ever have a sound engineer attempt to clean up the audio, if only to make sure that he was getting the transcript and interpretation correctly?

After seeing the Courier-Journal story, I wondered which interpretation is correct. My professional career outside blogging includes commercial, military and federal agency video and audio editing and special effects, and I am a former technical producer of one of the largest radio talk shows in the US. I cut the relevant portion of the McConnell audio and ran it through a series of processes to push the room noise down and bring the voices up.

Here is the result. First you’ll hear the raw audio, followed by two attempts to clean it up.

[jwplayer config=”pjm_tatler” mediaid=”121350″]

Even after removing hiss and adjusting the amplitude, the audio is still muddy. But it’s clear to me that the Courier-Journal is correct, and the speaker on the recording says “on their free time” or “in their free time,” not “thanked them three times.” The “s” sound at the end of “time” is from the following word, “so.” Corn’s interpretation sounds like it could be correct at first listen, until the audio is cleaned up. So he could have made the error in good faith.

Or not.

In January, Mother Jones reported on a high level meeting involving liberal heavyweights who sought to work together to take Republicans down. The meeting took place in December 2012. Sen. Mitch McConnell was among the targets discussed. Besides the usual liberal groups and unions, including the National Education Association which hosted it, Greenpeace, the Communications Workers of America union and others, a group that is involved in the McConnell tape was present.

Other attendees at the December meeting included top officials from the League of Conservation Voters, Friends of the Earth, Public Campaign, the AFL-CIO, SEIU, Common Cause, Voto Latino, the Demos think tank, Piper Fund, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, People for the American Way, National People’s Action, National Wildlife Federation, the Center for American Progress, the United Auto Workers, and Color of Change. (A non-editorial employee of Mother Jones also attended.)

Emphasis added. What is an ethics watchdog group doing at a political strategy meeting?

Fast forward to April. David Corn releases a tape that captures the gripping discussion of episodes in Ashley Judd’s past that she put on the record herself. And she has already dropped out of the race.

Corn releases the tape, then CREW slaps McConnell with its ethics complaint based on Corn’s incorrect transcription of the tape. It’s a classic one-two, indicating coordination and planning.

Too bad we don’t have any tapes of what was said during that December planning meeting that included CREW and someone from Mother Jones. Surely someone was recording it.