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Undercover Mitt Romney video: Who is Mother Jones?

Mother Jones scored the biggest scoop of the US election so far with an undercover Mitt Romney clip. But who on earth is she? Samuel Muston finds out

The term "damning" is much overworked when it comes to political scandal. But seldom has a piece of video footage seemed to be quite so much that, as Mitt Romney's surreptitiously videoed remarks at a $50,000-a-plate Republican Fundraiser on 17 May this year.

The video, which first shows him upbraiding 47 per cent of the American populous for fecklessness and "pay[ing] no income tax" and then breezily dismissing the notion of a two-state solution in the Middle East, may turn out to be the most ill-advised bit of plain-speaking by a US politician in memory.

It may also turn out to be the scoop of the decade. Yet the magazine which brought the video to public notice is probably one few outside the US have even heard of. So what is Mother Jones, and where did she come from?

The not-for-profit bi-monthly magazine and website is no newcomer. It's been labouring away on worthy reporting and political analysis since the dog days of the Ford Presidency in 1976, breaking stories on everything from ExxonMobil's funding of climate change naysayers to reporting on the rapidly collapsing health of the world's oceans.

According to David Carr, media columnist at the New York Times, it is an unapologetically liberal organ with a bent for muscular investigative journalism: "Its take on the world is built on holding what it sees as the 1 per cent to account, but the journalism they prosecute is taken seriously." Indeed, in the decades that followed its launch, Mother Jones has been seen as ideologically spotless, but heavy on the palate.

Yet an editorial arrangement almost as unusual as the magazine's name – which honours 19th-century Irish-American trade unionist and self-described "hell-raiser" Mary Harris Jones – has seen it become almost rollicking. Since 2006, it has been co-edited by Clara Jeffrey and Monika Bauerlain, and the magazine has bloomed. Moreover, it has found a cause to support in The Occupy Movement.

According to Carr, it has "[a] beefed-up presence in Washington and has been doing more and more serious investigative work". And it is the latter which is the heart of its resurgence – it is once more an old-fashioned muck-raker, though one which knows how to use the internet to best advantage.

A fine example of this is the investigation into the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. What started as a 1,000-word online piece was updated as new information emerged, creating a much-praised compendium on the case that totals 14,000 words.

The magazine is by no means without humour, though. On its website, with its patchwork quilt of blogs, news reports and photo essays, the serious sits alongside the mordantly funny: at the bottom of the site, far beneath the main story about the Romney indiscretions, are two photo essays. One is about prostitution around the world; the other is entitled 17 Photos Of Sad Mitt Romney, a gallery which may not yet be complete.

Gaffe maths

Mitt Romney's "47 per cent" line has managed to alienate an impressive percentage of the US electorate. But how does it rank with some of the other all-time great clangers?

* James Naughtie calling Jeremy Hunt, Jeremy "C***" on Radio 4.

UK population alienated 0.000001666 per cent

* Barack Obama suggesting smalltown Midwesterners still "cling to guns and religion"

US population alienated – 20 per cent

* Silvio Berlusconi referring to German MEP, Martin Schulz, as a "concentration camp guard"

European population alienated 16 per cent