With three different scandals threatening to consume the White House last week—the Benghazi cover-up, the Justice Department’s seizure of the phone records of dozens of Associated Press reporters, and the revelation of an anti-Tea Party inquisition by the Internal Revenue Service—CNBC’s John Harwood offered his journalistic peers some advice on Twitter: “Those of us in political-media world should just shut up about ‘narratives’ and focus on what’s true.” CBS anchor Scott Pelley joined in: “We are getting big stories wrong, over and over again.”
The fact that these sentiments needed to be expressed is a damning indictment of the media, which until last week had spent the entire Obama presidency typing “Ceci n’est pas un scandale” over and over again.
Of the three stories, the biggest test for the media will be how they respond to the IRS abuses, which they will be tempted to approve of for ideological reasons. Some 471 conservative groups seeking 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status were harassed by the IRS over a period of years, and our self-styled watchdog media played no role in bringing this injustice to light. It only became a scandal after the IRS publicly admitted its wrongdoing.
Attorney Cleta Mitchell represents a number of Tea Party and conservative groups—including many that sought and still haven’t been granted tax exempt status. Mitchell notes that overwhelming evidence of the IRS’s political targeting had long been public. The IRS was so brazen that last year “80 or 90 groups all got letters that are virtually identical, that are oppressive, with 30, 40, 50, 70 questions with parts and subparts and sub-subparts,” Mitchell told The Weekly Standard. “The Ways and Means [subcommittee] on IRS oversight held a hearing, and they asked about all this. Did the press do anything about it? No.”
The IRS absurdly insists that conservative groups were not singled out for ideological reasons. But we know that one of the criteria for determining which groups got extra scrutiny, offered up by the IRS with no apparent sense of irony, was a mission that involved “educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights.” Frightening stories of IRS intrusiveness are trickling out. A Tea Party group in Ohio reports that the IRS “wanted to know what materials we had discussed at any of our book studies.” One educational group in Tennessee was asked to turn over the names of all the high school and college kids it had trained. A pro-life group was asked to submit a letter in writing saying it would not protest Planned Parenthood.
The lack of interest by reporters in such stories is not surprising. The default media narrative (with apologies to John Harwood) holds that anyone suspicious of federal power, let alone with claims to be victimized by it, is a feral creature rising from the fever swamps. Indeed, last year the New York Times, well aware of the complaints from Tea Party groups, cheered on the government: “The I.R.S. must not flinch from its duty to enforce the tax code and root out political operatives who are abusing the law and conning taxpayers and voters” (“The I.R.S. Does Its Job,” March 7, 2012).
Even after the IRS apology, many media figures were eager to defend the government’s purity of motive. The IRS demands that applicants reveal what books they read, and the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin asks, “Did the I.R.S. actually do anything wrong? . . . A handful of I.R.S. employees saw [campaign finance inconsistencies] and tried, in a small way, to impose some small sense of order.” The New York Times headline last week was “I.R.S. Focus on Conservatives Gives GOP an Issue to Seize On,” as if the only disconcerting thing about IRS overreach is the hypothetical effect on Democratic electoral prospects. And Jon Stewart, who is increasingly dropping the comedian pose and owning up to his role as the millennial Cronkite, opined that the real problem in the IRS scandal is that it “shifted the burden of proof from the tin foil-behatted to the government.” Alas, it’s not paranoia if the government admits they really were out to get you.
After the IRS scandal broke there was finally a spate of good reporting last week, suggesting a political rot at the IRS that goes beyond what they have so far admitted. But playing catch-up won’t fix the media’s problems. Until newsrooms embrace ideological diversity and start questioning their own political assumptions, they’ll not only get big stories wrong, they’ll miss them completely. There is far more substance to most policy stories than whether they give the GOP “an issue to seize on.” The only “narrative” the media should concern themselves with is the growing evidence that they are deeply partisan and astonishingly incompetent.