How the Media Outrageously Blew the IRS Scandal

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This piece was first published on Salon.

Tea party activists attend a rally on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, June 19, 2013. The IRS has been under fire from Democrats and Republicans in Congress since May, when one of its officials publicly apologized for targeting conservative groups' applications for tax-exempt status for close examination. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Tea party activists attend a rally on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, June 19, 2013. The IRS has been under fire from Democrats and Republicans in Congress since May, when one of its officials publicly apologized for targeting conservative groups' applications for tax-exempt status for close examination. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The first few days of the IRS scandal that would consume Washington for weeks went like this: Conservatives were indignant, the media was outraged, the president had to respond, his allies turned on him … and only then, the Treasury Department’s inspector general released the actual report that had sparked the whole controversy — in that order. It’s a fitting microcosm of the entire saga, which has gone from legacy-tarnishing catastrophe to historical footnote in the intervening six weeks, and a textbook example of how the scandal narrative can dominate Washington and cable news even when there is no actual scandal.

While the initial reports about the IRS targeting looked pretty bad, suggesting that agents singled out tax-exempt applications for Tea Party and conservative groups for extra scrutiny, the media badly bungled the controversy when supposedly sober journalists like Bob Woodward and Chuck Todd jumped to conclusions and assumed the worst from day one. Instead of doing more reporting to discover the true nature and context of the IRS targeting, or at least waiting for their colleagues to do some, the supposedly liberal mainstream press let their eagerness to show they could be just as tough on a Democratic White House as a Republican one get ahead of the facts. We expect politicians to stretch reality to fit a narrative, but the press should be better.

And they would have gotten away with it, too, had their narrative had the benefit of being true. But now, almost two months later, we know that in fact the IRS targeted lots of different kinds of groups, not just conservative ones; that the only organizations whose tax-exempt statuses were actually denied were progressive ones; that many of the targeted conservative groups legitimately crossed the line; that the IG’s report was limited to only Tea Party groups at congressional Republicans’ request; and that the White House was in no way involved in the targeting and didn’t even know about it until shortly before the public did.

In short, the entire scandal narrative was a fiction. But it had real consequences, effectively derailing Obama’s agenda not long after a resounding reelection, costing several people their careers, and distracting and misinforming the public. It’s not that nothing went wrong at the IRS, but that the transgression merited nowhere near the media response it earned. But instead of acknowledging its error or correcting the record, the mainstream political press has simply moved on to the next game. Now that the emperor has been revealed to have no clothes, it’s worth looking back at what went wrong.

The pace at which the scandal went from zero to Watergate was breathtaking, with the narrative of a Nixonian plot to sic the feds on political enemies forming in the immediate hours after the IRS’ initial apology for the targeting on Friday, May 10. On NBC’s “Nightly News” that day, the first words out of White House correspondent Chuck Todd’s mouth were: “It harkens back to a Nixonian-type tactic, if you will, a political tactic here in the White House.”

Coming at the end of a week of renewed media interest in the Benghazi attack — another scandal that was at least two-parts hype to one-part reality — the two scandals reinforced each other and together created a narrative more powerful than either could possibly hope to be on its own. By Sunday morning, the hosts, guests and pundits on the morning political talk shows easily connected the two and soon there was a cloud of scandal hanging over the White House that every serious person on cable news agreed could doom Obama’s entire second term. David Gregory invoked the “second term curse,” George Will read the portion of Richard Nixon’s Articles of Impeachments that focused on the IRS, David Brooks pointed out that “second terms are generally hit with scandal.” Heading into that week, the “compromised second term” narrative was already cemented and would prove impervious to contradicting information for weeks.

Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth political scientist who studies the media’s role in creating scandals, wasn’t particularly surprised. “In other circumstances, the first reports might not have immediately turned into a media firestorm, but the context was very favorable for a scandal to develop and so the media largely embraced the targeting story before all the facts were known,” he told Salon.

What’s often important in scandals is not that someone violated ethical norms, but that “a public figure or institution are successfully construed as violating ethical norms,” he wrote in a recent research paper. Scandals are social constructions and how big one gets often has little to do with the actual severity of the ethical transgression in question, and a lot to do with the political and media context.  ”In some cases, it will only take a spark from a relatively flimsy allegation to set off a significant controversy, while other environments will be much less prone to scandalous conflagrations.”

In other words, it takes two to scandal — the opposition party needs the media (Fast and Furious didn’t work because the press mostly ignored it) and the press needs the opposition party’s furor to advance the scandal narrative and provide political cover. Only when both groups’ interests align in favor of scandal do they emerge. There is where the “second term curse” has some reality. The conditions are often ripe for scandal after presidential reelections, when the media is looking for a new story and opposition parties are looking for a new way to respond to their base’s animosity toward the president, now that it can’ t be channeled into an election.

On Monday, May 12, news broke that the Justice Department had obtained phone records on AP reporters while investigating a national security leak and the scandal narrative exploded. The White House decided to get in front of the scandal story overtaking Washington, employing the same wisdom that worked so well for them in the Shirley Sherrod scandal, when the administration fired an obscure Agriculture Department official before even trying to determine if the tape exposing her wrongdoing was accurate (it was not). The Sherrod case was in many ways a distilled version of the IRS one, when initial facts that looked damning were later exonerated, but the damage had already been done in the panic to respond quickly. The president took the rare step of responding personally, calling the alleged targeting of conservative groups “outrageous” — if true, though that latter part seemed to be largely overlooked.

That night, even Jon Stewart was ready to toss the president overboard. By Tuesday morning, Politico declared that Washington had “turned on” Obama and that this was “very bad news for this White House.” On liberal MSNBC, that lapdog of the White House, Andrea Mitchell declared the IRS targeting of Tea Party groups “one of the most outrageous excesses that I’ve seen in all my years in journalism.” Robert Gibbs, enjoying his new role as MSNBC contributor after spending years as Obama’s spokesperson, slammed his former boss’s “exceedingly passive” response to the controversy.

On Wednesday, Obama lost Chris Matthews. “The story that’s going to haunt the Democratic Party is going to be this IRS story,” the liberal lion of MSNBC’s prime time said. Even Bob Woodward, held up as the paragon of American journalism, overhyped the scandal in an appearance on Bill O’Reilly. Still, on “Morning Joe” he stopped short of saying the IRS targeting was Watergate — “yet.”

From there, there was no going back. Instead of waiting for more reporting to determine whether the IRS targeted other kinds of groups too, or to see if the White House was actually involved (it was not), the punditocracy had already made up their minds. And in doing so, they did a disservice to the public. By mid-June, half of the American people erroneously thought the White House ordered the targeting of Tea Party groups, up 10 points from the previous month. Obama’s approval rating dropped 8 points and his agenda stalled.

At no point did anyone seem to pause and say, let’s wait to see what really happened here. Well, almost no one. One day on “Morning Joe” after the National Journal’s Ron Fournier said that it looked like the White House was using the levers of federal power against opponents, Carl Bernstein, who broke the actual Watergate scandal, cautioned, “We have no evidence of that whatsoever.” For that, he got mocked. “How could we, Carl? Of course we don’t have any evidence of that, but that’s why you have investigations. You know that,” Joe Scarborough said derisively.

But eventually,  in the weeks that followed, new facts emerged and the scandal narrative started to fall apart. No one was able to produce evidence that the White House was involved and those involved said it wasn’t; Republicans seemed to be obfuscating; we learned that liberal groups were targeted too. Beginning in late May, Republicans started talking about the scandal less and less. Darrell Issa’s regular appearances on cable news ended. A new conventional wisdom was spreading: GOP overreach.

When Mitch McConnnell stopped trying to prove the White House ordered the targeting and instead insisted that the president had to disprove the allegations, New York’s Jon Chait saw it as a sign that Republicans were giving up on making the scandal stick in reality. It was a “covered retreat,” Chait wrote, “signaling the IRS scandal’s turn into a vague trope that conservatives use with other members of the tribe, the way liberals liked to say ‘Halliburton’ during the Bush years, to signal some dark beliefs they don’t need to back up.” It had moved into Solyndra and Fast and Furious territory.

But the the GOP really lost its media buy-in when Issa refused to release the full transcript of his interviews with IRS agents. Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking member of Issa’s oversight committee, released the transcripts himself, which revealed that a self-described conservative Republican ordered the targeting. Matthews concluded the scandal was nothing more than people trying to do their jobs and screwing up (something many of us were saying from day one). Todd said Republicans were “overplaying their hand” and that it was “a bureaucratic scandal,” not a political one.

In the beginning, the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent noted, “The idea then was to create an atmosphere of scandal, in hopes of getting the press to place each and every new fact about the unfolding stories into that framework, with no sense of balance or perspective about how significant each new piece of information really was. That worked for a time, but GOP scandal overreach really did produce a media backlash of sorts.”

But mostly, the scandal faded into the background and then disappeared without much recognition, let alone accountability for the people who helped create it. As the journalism adage goes, everyone reads the false report and no one reads the correction. ”My objection to the media coverage is that many reporters and commentators were more interested in the Obama scandal narrative than the facts of the case,” Nyhan told  me. “Do I fault the press for this? Yes, but at the same time, it’s the reality of how the media works and is unlikely to change.”

Conservatives get one thing right about the media — many of its members personally lean liberal. But what they get wrong is assuming that this translates to favorable coverage of Democrats. Often it’s the opposite. Sensitive to criticism of bias and eager to prove their independence and objectivity, the mainstream media often seems to overcorrect by showing less mercy to Democratic administrations than they do to Republican ones. Steve Almond, writing for Salon, argued that the IRS scandal was “Whitewater all over again,” referring to the Clinton-era non-scandal scandal. No one cared when the IRS went after liberal groups like the NAACP and even progressive churches under George W. Bush.

And who could imagine the conservative press disowning the Bush White House as quickly as the liberal pundits on MSNBC did. Bill O’Reilly and his gang at Fox will defend their team to the death, no matter how bad things get and how much flip-flopping is needed to get there. In many ways, this is a compliment to liberal pundits for trying to be more intellectually honest than their conservative peers. But trying to show fair-mindedness by imposing a false balance is just a different form of dishonesty.

UPDATE: MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell is distressed that we did not name him as an exception to the media’s poor coverage of this story. Here, then, is an example of where he did get it right (along with some others on the left).


Alex Seitz-WaldAlex Seitz-Wald is Salon’s political reporter. Email him at aseitz-wald@salon.com, and follow him on Twitter @aseitzwald.
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