Mother Jones, sometimes referred to colloquially as MoJo or MJ, is a left-of-center bimonthly general interest and politics magazine published out of San Francisco, California. The magazine is named for Mary Harris Jones, a labor union organizer and activist working throughout the United States in the early decades of the twentieth century. It is a publication of the 501(c)(3) organization Foundation for National Progress and financed through donations, subscriptions, and advertisements.
The magazine is edited by Clara Jeffery. Past editors include Michael Moore, Adam Hochschild, Paul Jacobs, Richard Parker, Deborah Johnson, Jeffrey Bruce Klein, Mark Dowie, Amanda Spake, Zina Klapper, and Deirdre English. The Foundation’s CEO is Monika Bauerlein.
The foundation was established in 1975 and the publication in 1976 with the declared intent to preserve journalism from corporate influence and interference, and has sought to write often about corporate interests. Foundation for National Progress is a regular recipient of left-of-center billionaire George Soros’ money through donations from his Open Society Foundations, as well as donations from other progressive organizations and special interests.
According to the magazine, in early 1974 Paul Jacobs, an activist and journalist, and Adam Hochschild, a journalist and mining heir, organized a series of meetings in Jacobs’ living room to discuss starting a magazine. Their object was to create a publication for investigative journalism focused on multinational corporations. In order to fund such a magazine, the group established the Foundation for National Progress in 1975, and the first issue was published in the following year with a staff of 17. In its early operations the magazine was edited by a board, which shared managerial responsibilities.
Mother Jones played a large role in reporting and pushing the controversy over the Ford Pinto’s safety in the late ’70s. The magazine’s circulation peaked in 1980 at 238,000. At times, Hochschild used his inheritance from his father’s mining interests to finance Mother Jones’s considerable deficits. In 1993, it became the first general-interest magazine to publish its articles on the internet.
Criticism from the Left
The magazine has faced criticisms from the left alleging it has failed to live up to the legacy of its namesake, pioneer union organizer Mary Harris “Mother” Jones. Jones was a socialist and labor organizer who lived from 1830 until 1930, best known for recruiting miners and other workers to labor unions, particularly the Industrial Workers of the World, and organinzing strikes and demonstrations throughout the United States around the turn of the 20th century. She also helped found the Social Democratic Party in the U.S.
In a 2010 essay in Swans Magazine, Michael Barker lamented the role wealthy liberal elites play in the editorial direction of openly liberal media outlets such as Mother Jones: “Mother Jones presents the perfect illustration of a left-leaning magazine that acts as a mask for the soft power of liberal elites and their not-for-profit corporations, as liberal philanthropists from the ruling elites provide over 56 percent of the magazine’s total annual revenue.” Barker goes on to argue, using coverage of the National Endowment for Democracy as an illustration, that wealthy liberal elites control Mother Jones’ editorial line and coverage, restricting its ability to be an honest left-wing voice.
In an essay in Paste Magazine, a progressive commentator cites a supporter of self-described socialist U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) to levy criticism of Mother Jones: “it doesn’t make sense, given the namesake. It’s truly angering that a poor woman laborer who fought tirelessly (and was arrested) for poor workers and even socialism is being represented by smug elites who viciously go after a fairly mundanely left candidate (Bernie) for the temerity of challenging a corporatist shill.” The essay’s author condemned Mother Jones for conceding to the interests of the corporate center-left: “Even that goal [opposing corporate interests] fell away during the election when the dominant voices of the magazine took to championing Hillary Clinton, notorious for her alliance with Goldman Sachs, ExxonMobil, and TD Bank, to name a few.”
This concern from the left over MoJo’s commitment to the legacy of its namesake goes all the way back to its early years. In a 1978 National Affairs essay called “Would Mother Jones Buy ‘Mother Jones’?,” in which he essentially argues the negative, Michael A. Scully summarizes the critique with “Affluent societies produce affluent critics.”
Mother Jones magazine’s corporate parent, the Foundation for National Progress, has received substantial contributions from Democratic-aligned donors. George Soros’ Open Society Foundations gave the Foundation for National Progress $485,000 in 2008. Between 2000 and 2013, another project of the Foundation for National Progress started in 2006, the Media Consortium, was given $675,000. The Media Consortium is a network of left-of-center outlets, come together to coordinate efforts and share data. Mother Jones has also received significant grants from the MacArthur Foundation, including a $300,000 grant in 2014, and a 5-year $1,500,000 grant in 2016.
The election of President Donald Trump has been good for Mother Jones’s business. The magazine saw a 160 percent increase in small donations for November through January compared to the same period a year ago. January 2017 had a 72 percent increase in web traffic over 2016. And revenue from donors who have signed up for recurring monthly payments, as well as the number of web readers who are also print magazine subscribers have both increased threefold. In the last fiscal year, the magazine received more than $13.5 million in revenue.
In 2012, Mother Jones released clips and stories based on a surreptitiously recorded video of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney at a private fundraiser in which he described 47 percent of voters as believing they were “victims” who could not be convinced to take “personal responsibility and care for their lives.” The recording and subsequent backlash is sometimes credited with having seriously hurt Romney’s chances in the election. Mother Jones’ writer David Corn’s research into Romney leading up to this was heavily aided by James Carter, the grandson of President Jimmy Carter, whom Corn admits “possessed a deep personal motive for unearthing material on Romney, who routinely disparaged his grandfather.” Corn claims not to have known Carter’s relation to the former president when they began their partnership. The video was acquired from an anonymous source.
In 2014, Mother Jones senior writer Shane Bauer worked undercover as a prison guard at a privately operated prison in Louisiana. Bauer wrote a 35,000-word expose of the for-profit prison industry published in 2016. Mother Jones published despite a legal threat already lodged by the parent company of the prison, Corrections Corporation of America. Bauer used his own name and Social Security number to apply for work as a guard for CCA, and noted his employment by the Foundation for National Progress in his application. After his four-month stint as a guard, he and the magazine spent 14 more months reporting and fact-checking for the story.
Association with Michael Moore
Mother Jones’ past editors include Adam Hochschild, Paul Jacobs, Richard Parker, Deborah Johnson, Jeffrey Bruce Klein, Mark Dowie, Amanda Spake, Zina Klapper, Deirdre English, and documentary filmmaker Michael Moore. In 1986, Moore’s dismissal from the magazine prompted national controversy and a $2 million wrongful termination lawsuit. Moore alleged he was fired after four months on the job, having previously been editor of The Michigan Voice, for opposing the publication of an article critical of the left-wing Sandinista government of Nicaragua led by Soviet- and Cuban-backed caudillo Daniel Ortega.
At the time, the Foundation for National Progress board contested the claim that ideological difference led to the firing, charging general inadequacy. The New York Times reported that senior staff of the magazine believed that Moore had been “so rigidly ideological that he opposed publication of a legitimate article because of his disagreement with its conclusions,” though Moore argued the piece was simply wrong. Moore succeeded in his lawsuit against the magazine and ended up being awarded $58,000, all of which he put into starting his documentary filmmaking career.
Since beginning an internship program in 1980, Mother Jones has had more than 800 interns work for it. In 2013, Vice News documented Mother Jones’ participation in a trend among progressive media organizations of failing to match their labor practices with trade unionist rhetoric about minimum wages and labor union rights in intern compensation. In 2012, Mother Jones renamed its internships “fellowships” in order to reflect the level of work expected. Fellows received a $1,000 per-month stipend in San Francisco, one of the most expensive cities in the country. Following six months at the magazine, fellowships could be extended the rest of the year with pay increased to $1,400 a month, which still came dramatically short of estimated “living wages.” After Vice’s report, Mother Jones increased their fellowship pay to $1,500 a month.
In 2016, Mother Jones wrote a controversial profile of white supremacist leader Richard Spencer. The magazine published a significant profile of Spencer which described the advocate of ethnic cleansing and Assad regime apologist as “dapper” in its original headline. The profile was condemned for its fluffiness, including highlighting Spencer’s abilities with chopsticks and his enjoyment of Domino’s pizza, and its relatively uncritical tone.
In 2004, Mother Jones gave space for anti-vaccination arguments in an article titled “Toxic Tipping Point,” which allowed for speculation that “the CDC, the FDA, and other health agencies” were “covering up evidence that a mercury preservative in children’s vaccines caused a rise in autism.” The magazine now notes on its website before the article that “Since this story was first published, the scientific debate it covered has been settled: Vaccines do not cause autism.”
While Mother Jones has had a number of organizational structures, including a board of editors who took turns managing the magazine, it is now led by editor-in-chief Clara Jeffrey. Steven Katz has been the magazine’s publisher since 2010. Phil Straus has been co-chair and chair of the board of directors since June 2008 after joining in February 2006. Jeffrey served as co-editor with Monika Bauerlein from 2006 until 2015, when Bauerlein stepped away to become the magazine’s CEO. Jeffrey was the magazine’s deputy editor, beginning in 2002. Bauerlein had served as the investigative editor, and went to work at Mother Jones in 2000. Under the pair of them, Mother Jones expanded its investigative team and built a D.C. and New York City bureau. Maria Streshinsky, previously the editor-in-chief of Pacific Standard and managing editor of The Atlantic joined the magazine as deputy editor during the transition to Jeffrey’s sole editorship.
President Trump’s election and administration has prompted Jeffrey into the political Twitter spotlight for particularly dramatic tweets. Following the election results, she compared Trump’s victory to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, writing “Haven’t felt this gutted since I watched the Twin Towers fall.” After the Trump administration launched Tomahawk cruise missiles at an airbase in Syria in retaliation for chemical weapons atrocities by Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, Jeffrey commented that the missile system’s name may be offensive, writing “That the missiles are callled [sic] tomahawks must enrage a lot of Native Americans.”