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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."

So again, the evidence suggests that Tea Party groups were disproportionately targeted. Now it's important to acknolwedge that facts could still emerge that might reshape our understanding of the scandal, but the preponderance of available evidence suggests the IRS was targeting conservative groups. Further, the reason why we don't know more is that the IRS itself is stonewalling. Prominent IRS officials have taken the Fifth, and the IRS has released to Congress just 13,000 of 65 million pages of documents that the IRS says it has related to the scandal. If there were documents or facts exonerating the IRS, it seems like they'd be more forthcoming.

Nyhan's curious framing of the facts here is also troubling because he has a not undeserved reputation as a sober academic. Others with a more obvious political agenda are now using his flawed analysis for their own ends. Yesterday, Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein essentially regurgitated Nyhan's analysis on his own blog, right down to reproducing his same graphs. The piece is titled "The media loves covering scandal. We don’t love telling you when the scandal falls apart." Here are the two penultimate graphs:

Wonkblog, I’m sorry to say, was part of the problem here. Early on, we covered the IRS scandal aggressively. Looking back, I think that coverage holds up well, including my initial report on the explosion of 501(c)(4)s and a piece I subsequently wrote arguing that “the scandals are falling apart.”

But as the scandals actually did fall apart, we didn’t really return to the subject. I remember, in particular, a couple of days where I meant to write about revelations that the targeting lists included the word “progressive” and the testimony that Rep. Elijah Cummings had released from a conservative IRS supervisor. The new information pretty much shut the door on the idea that there was a politically motivated, high-reaching effort to hassle right-leaning groups. But more pressing news kept intervening, and I never ended up writing the article.

Kind of odd that Klein would say the media doesn't like saying "the scandals are falling apart," when he, in fact, credits himself for writing a piece headlined "The Scandals Are Falling Apart."  This makes his adoption of the royal "We" in discussing the media's failures on the scandal pretty disingenous. The subtext here is obvious. In May, when Klein prematurely declared that the "scandals were falling apart" -- a title that also referenced the unresolved Benghazi and the spying on journalists scandals -- he was roundly mocked for doing so. A week later, Klein was summoned to the White House with a few other left-leaning bloggers, apparently to help coordinate their response to the IRS scandal, and suddenly he was taking the IRS scandal more seriously. If Wonkblog hasn't returned to the coverage since then, that's likely because, despite a few minor revelations, no substantial evidence has emerged to change the basic political narrative of the IRS scandal that he's been trying and failing to dismiss from the beginning. But Klein is now under the impression that the weak case Nyhan's marshalled gives him license to revisit the topic. Far from "we" in the media being reticent to say the scandals are falling apart, it seems Klein's trying to take credit for doing just that because he thinks he has a rare politically advantageous opportunity to say it again.

But based on the actual evidence, Klein was foolish to say the "scandals are falling apart" in May, and it's foolish to say it now. At the end of the day, I suspect that the recent disregard for the facts and the odd framing of the scandal is really about creating a "permission structure" -- a phrase Klein is no doubt familiar with -- for those on the left to help begin speaking of the scandal as if it's not legitimate. In fairness, it's not just Klein dismissing the scandal -- here's MSNBC's Steve Benen, The New Republic, and CNN hitting the same theme. After all, the White House Press Secretary recently surprised observers declaring IRS a "phony scandal." We journalists might be expected to be suspect of the White House's motivations for dismissing the IRS scandal, but it seems some of us have received marching orders.

P.S. This is somewhat tangential, but even if it could be proven that the IRS was acting apolitically and targeting everyone with equal abandon, why would this understanding result in less "reputational damage" to the IRS? Political targeting by the IRS would likely be the result of a few bad actors. It's easy to solve the problem by cleaning house. If the entire IRS up and down the chain of command saw nothing wrong with sending out lengthy questionaires demanding to know the content of prayers and the political affiliations of your relatives willy-nilly, that suggests virtually no one at the agency knows the limits of its authority. The IRS's entire bureaucratic culture is compromised, and that's a much harder problem to fix as a matter of restoring credibility.

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