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The Campaign to Wish Away the IRS Scandal

1:05 PM, Aug 2, 2013 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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Over at the Columbia Journalism Review, political scientist Brendan Nyhan has a piece dismissing the IRS scandal out-of-hand and gently scolding the media for for acting irresponsibly in their coverage. You get the thrust in the first two paragraphs:

At this point, the evidence on the Internal Revenue Service scandal is clear. Contrary to the initial hype, there is no credible evidence of White House involvement in targeting conservative groups or even evidence that Tea Party or other conservative groups were targeted exclusively. It turns out that the keyword lists used by the IRS to target groups applying for tax-exempt status for additional scrutiny also included terms like “Occupy” and “Progressive” as well as “occupied territories” and “open source software.”

Nonetheless, the scandal could have serious consequences for the IRS. As The New Republic’s Alec MacGillis argued this week, Peggy Noonan’s comparisons to Watergate may be hyperbolic but the reputational damage to the agency that she describes could be real.

Nyhan goes on to produce a series of graphs showing that after the initial reporting on the scandal, newspaper coverage of the revelations of additional developments in the IRS scandal, such as the revelation the IRS's BOLO (Be On the Lookout) list included terms targeting left-wing groups, didn't recieve much coverage at all.

Alas, Nyhan's framing of the IRS scandal and the subsequent developments hovers somewhere between obtuse and misleading. It's true that no credible evidence of White House involvement in the IRS's targeting of Tea Party groups emerged. But as far as I know, no one asserted any credible evidence to begin with. Was there some irresponsible speculation to that end? Sure, but I don't see how you keep a lid on that -- especially when there's the historical precedent of White House occupants using the IRS to target their political enemies.

As for Nyhan's assertion there's no "evidence that Tea Party or other conservative groups were targeted exclusively," where does that come from? That seems like a bit of sophistry -- there's a huge chasm of meaning between "exclusively" and the more accurate "disproportionately." No one was under the illusion the IRS targeted no other nonprofit groups other than conservative groups over a period of years. The issue is the relative amount of scrutiny.

To that end, newspapers didn't make too much hay about the new revelations about the scope of IRS inquiries, because they didn't fundamentally change the perception of what was driving the scandal. "Progressive" may have been on a BOLO list, but there's no proof the IRS actually followed through and audited comparable numbers of conservative and liberal groups. In fact, according to this NPR report on the House Ways and Means Committee's analysis of the issue:

When the IRS sent groups letters asking for further information, conservative groups were asked more questions — on average, three times more. All of the groups with "progressive" in their name were ultimately approved, while only 46 percent of conservative groups won approval. Others are still waiting for an answer or gave up.

There are more detailed numbers at the link in the form of, yes, a graph breaking down how conservatives were disproportionately targeted. But maybe you're skeptical of these numbers because the House Ways and Means Committee is controlled by Republicans. In June, Congressional Democrats asked J. Russell George, Treasury inspector general for tax administration, about whether any left-leaning groups were also targeted inappropriately:

"In total, 30 percent of the organizations we identified with the words 'progress' or 'progressive' in their names were processed as potential political cases," George wrote to Rep. Sandy Levin, D-Mich., the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee. "In comparison, our audit found that 100 percent of the tax-exempt applications with Tea Party, Patriots, or 9/12 in their names were processed as potential political cases during the timeframe of our audit."

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