Last Friday, I critiqued a piece by Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan for inaccurately summarizing the media coverage of the IRS scandal. I encourage you to read both pieces, but in a nutshell Nyhan was arguing that the media had failed to report on new developments since the scandal broke that would reshape our understanding of the scandal as being less driven by partisanship. I responded that the media also hadn't much reported on subsequent evidence that reaffirmed the IRS was targeting groups based on conservative ideology—which Nyhan didn't note or address. I also made the point that the IRS was pretty clearly stonewalling attempts to gather more evidence and that I was troubled that people with an obvious political axe to grind were using Nyhan's incomplete summary to argue that the IRS scandal was insignificant and safely ignored.
Now Nyhan has responded to me. This time around, he's now allowing the following:
This critique should not be viewed as a defense of the White House or its position on the controversy. Indeed, my piece could be read as a call for more coverage, not less. As Hemingway notes, though the IRS keyword lists included liberal and non-political terms like “open source,” data from the inspector general and Republican staff on the House Ways and Means Committee suggests liberal groups may have been less likely to be selected for follow-up or to receive intense scrutiny. If such a discrepancy were found to be attributable to political factors, it would be a matter of serious public concern—precisely the kind that reporters should investigate!
I don't disagree with that statement at all. I suspect that if he hadn't first framed the issue to strongly suggest the evidence no longer pointed to the IRS disproportionately targeting right-leaning groups, there would be little objection to his argument. However, in his first piece he made reference to a lot of "complex or ambiguous details" that had emerged since the scandal broke and left the impression the agency was unfairly suffering "reputational damage" from those that insisted the agency was engaged in partisan targeting. Again, I wasn't the only one who interpreted his piece that way—Ezra Klein at the Washington Post hailed his piece as evidence the "scandal falls apart."
Still, I initially dinged mostly for Nyhan for sins of omission rather than commission. I'm not entirely sure that's the case with his response to me. To further make his point that the media coverage egregiously shaped the perception of the scandal as partisan, he goes out of his way to cite two examples from THE WEEKLY STANDARD. Alas, I think these two examples are revealing in ways Nyhan didn't intend. Here's one:
In fact, just a few weeks ago, The Weekly Standard’s Michael Warren was still making ominous suggestions of White House involvement:
[T]here are some questions about how the White House was left in the dark about the IRS’s probing of conservative groups when its own appointee [William Wilkins, the IRS chief counsel] appears to have known about the investigations…
It seems to me that Nyhan is straining to put the worst spin on this possible. There are a few issues here. One is witnesses testified before Congress that someone in the White House may have known about the IRS investigations. That's not ominously suggesting anything, it's reporting the facts. Two, while I readily concede (again) that there's no evidence that the IRS was targeting groups at the direction of the White House, we can't conclusively say that none exists, either. Particularly since the IRS isn't releasing millions of requested documents and many of the primary figures in the scandal have invoked the Fifth Amendment. Three, the president is still responsible for what happens under the executive branch. Maybe the White House didn't have anything to do with the scandal, but if someone close to the White House had an inkling that the IRS was asking people about their relatives and private religious beliefs as a means of determining their tax status and didn't do anything to stop it—that's news. Saying Warren "ominously suggested" White House involvement is grossly unfair.
Here's the second example, which is a little more on point but still problematic:
What he leaves out, however, is that this sort of “irresponsible speculation” was widespread, including within his own publication. (What some call “a lid” others might describe as “editing.”) For instance, here’s one of his colleagues, Jeffrey H. Anderson, writing in The Weekly Standard in late May:
The Washington Examiner reports that the IRS chief visited the White House more than once a week under President Obama, after having visited less than once a year under President Bush…
Aside from perhaps being there to discuss targeting efforts, the only plausible reason for the IRS chief to have visited the Obama White House so regularly was to discuss the IRS’s significant expansion in power and scope under Obamacare.
(The misleading storyline about the IRS commissioner’s visits to the White House was also played up by The Daily Caller and Bill O’Reilly, among others. The Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Rute took it apart here.)
In my initial critique of Nyhan, I was upfront about the fact there had been irresponsible speculation in the scandal. Where we differ is in how much impact any bad reporting had on public opinion. For his part, Nyhan cites a CNN poll in June saying that 50 percent of those asked thought there was White House involvement in the scandal. Bad reporting surely plays a role in this result, but accusing presidents of using the IRS against their enemies has been a common political trope since Nixon. I suspect that number would be alarmingly high, regardless of the actual evidence of White House malfeasance or quality of reporting.
Though the error was not ours, perhaps THE WEEKLY STANDARD should have gone back and clarified Anderson's blog post once evidence emerged later that the Washington Examiner's report was misleading.
At the end of the day, we'd all like higher journalistic standards in the face of breaking news, scandals and twenty-four hour news cycles. Nyhan's not wrong to lament that, but regardless of any bad reporting the basic thrust of the IRS scandal remains unchanged. Unintentionally or not, Nyhan's piece last week seemed to intimate that subsequent evidence in the IRS scandal suggests that there weren't partisan motivations and that IRS officials' wrongdoing was less serious.
In any event, I still regard Nyhan as doing quality work on media and political issues. With luck, we're all a little more careful and better informed as a result of this exchange and I expect to be praising, as opposed to critiquing, Nyhan's work again soon.