By: Roger Aronoff
Accuracy in Media
The IRS scandal is not going away, despite the media’s best attempts to bury it. During Karen Finney’s new weekend MSNBC show, Disrupt, she argued that the IRS scandal is a “non-scandal.” Finney, a Democratic Party operative and former spokesperson for Hillary Clinton, referred to it as a “so-called scandal that turned out to be about a guy in Cincinnati who was trying to determine if these groups qualified for tax-exempt status so they could keep the names of their donors secret.” Her statements trivialized the IRS’s unconscionable behavior, where conservatives were disproportionately targeted for their stated beliefs and a “moratorium” was placed on their 501(c)4 applications. Even Ezra Klein, in a piece for The Washington Post, argued that the controversy erupted because there was disproportionate scrutiny on conservatives instead of liberals. “The scrutiny was the part they did right. The targeting was the part they did wrong,” he argued.
Does that mean now there is no scandal if both sides were treated with appropriate scrutiny? That’s what the liberal media have been arguing given recent revelations from the Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee.
As Accuracy in Media has previously reported, President Barack Obama called the IRS actions “outrageous” and “unacceptable.” “White House spokesman Jay Carney…called the IRS action ‘inappropriate’ and said the Obama administration supports a full investigation, suggesting the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration would have jurisdiction,” reported USA Today. IRS official Lois Lerner also apologized. “That was wrong. That was absolutely incorrect, it was insensitive and it was inappropriate,” said Lerner. Former IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman said he regretted that the IRS actions happened on his watch and was “deeply saddened” by them, but refused to apologize at a hearing, reported The Washington Post on May 21.
And on Monday, June 24, a report was released by Danny Werfel, the acting IRS commissioner, in which he acknowledged that “The Internal Revenue Service’s screening of groups seeking tax-exempt status was broader and lasted longer than has been previously disclosed.” While he called them “mistakes,” he claimed that “We have not found evidence of intentional wrongdoing by anyone in the IRS or involvement in these matters by anyone outside the IRS.”
But Chuck Todd, on his Tuesday MSNBC show The Daily Rundown, asserted that “the IRS ‘scandal’ looks like it’s a bureaucratic scandal, not the political scandal that Republicans were wishing that they had come up with.” That’s because, allegedly, both liberals and conservatives were targets.
However, if these key figures have all apologized for the IRS misconduct, can it really be called a non-scandal?
Todd asserted that “They [the White House] were so fearing the political impact that they sort of let this, they almost gave it, by their lack of reaction, gave it legs.” However, as Accuracy in Media has documented, both the White House chief of staff and the White House counsel knew about the scandal in April, before it came out on May 10th with a staged question. Does anyone really believe that President Obama and his communications apparatus were not informed?
For Karen Finney, the Tea Party is just using this scandal as an excuse to kill ObamaCare through the IRS. We have argued that the scandal does indeed make ObamaCare an even tougher sell.
The IRS scandal has also taken a large toll on the credibility of the Obama Administration. A recent CNN poll of 1,014 adults indicates that 51% of respondents considered the IRS scandal “very important.” And 47% indicated that they believe that the White House directly “ordered” the targeting of conservatives by the IRS—a 10 point jump from the May 17-18 poll. (In the older poll 55% of respondents believed the “IRS acted on their own.” Clearly growing evidence of Washington involvement is taking its toll on public opinion. All the more reason for the media to intercede on Obama’s behalf.)
National Public Radio (NPR) has pushed the Administration’s line that this was a mistake, the “inartful” misconduct of line workers lacking political savvy. “But as we delve deeper into this, it seems just as likely, maybe even more likely, that it was a matter of bureaucrats trying to figure out how to deal with these hundreds, thousands of applications that have been coming in since court rulings made this form of group more advantageous for use in politics,” said NPR’s S.V. Date on June 22. Date “coordinates campaign finance coverage for NPR,” according to their website. “And shortcuts were taken and what we’re seeing here is perhaps more inartful use of their procedures than any type of political malice,” he added.
After all, IRS official Lois Lerner stated on May 10 that “It’s the line people that did it without talking to managers. They’re IRS workers, they’re revenue agents.”
Lerner’s assertion has been directly contradicted by the revelation that Holly Paz, a Washington, D.C. IRS official, was involved in those cases as early as 2010.
“In an interview with congressional investigators, [the] transcript of which was released to several news outlets, Paz acknowledged having ‘reviewed 20 to 30 applications’ from politically active groups seeking non-profit [status],” writes Media Matters’ Oliver Willis. “But it was not improper for the IRS to review such applications—the reason the IRS has been criticized is because they used politically slanted criteria to select conservative, but not progressive, groups to receive that scrutiny” (emphasis added).
Now the media have seized on new IRS documents that show that some liberal groups may have been targeted at the same time that conservative groups were. The Be On the Lookout (BOLO) lists included search terms such as “Israel,” “Progressive,” and “Occupy,” according to the Associated Press, which received “15 lists of terms that the IRS agency used and has provided to congressional investigators” from Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee. Many news outlets led with headlines highlighting this new revelation, from NPR, CNN, The New York Times, and others.
What is notable about the subsequent news accounts is that reporters aren’t specifying which particular groups were targeted, just that BOLO lists were used. This is a far cry from the overwhelming evidence that conservative groups have brought forward to make their case: that the IRS demanded lists of donors, all tweets or Facebook postings, and even the list of participants and minutes from meetings.
“Neither the IRS document obtained by the AP or the 15 IRS lists of terms addressed how many progressive groups received close scrutiny or how the agency treated their requests,” the Associated Press recently reported. “Dozens of conservative groups saw their applications experience lengthy delays, and they received unusually intrusive questions about their donors and other details that agency officials have conceded were inappropriate.”
For example, have any of these progressive groups that were supposedly flagged for extra scrutiny been visited by the FBI, like Catherine Engelbrecht, founder of King Street Patriots and True the Vote? Let them come forward and testify about their scrutiny and delays, rather than ask us to just blindly accept that they received similar treatment with no evidence to back it up.
Eliana Johnson, writing for the National Review, clarifies how the far broader BOLO lists don’t eliminate the scandal—and they don’t even undermine the narrative that conservatives were targeted. “A November 2010 version of the list obtained by National Review Online, however, suggests that while the list did contain the word ‘progressive,’ screeners were instructed to treat progressive groups differently from tea-party groups,” writes Johnson. “Whereas they were merely alerted that a designation of 501(c)(3) status ‘may not be appropriate’ for progressive groups—501(c)(3) organizations are prohibited from conducting any political activity—they were told to send applications from tea-party groups off to IRS higher-ups for further scrutiny.”
This contrasts greatly with the 27 month “Tea Party moratorium” described by Gregory Korte at USA Today in May. Korte reported at the time that “There wouldn’t be another Tea Party application approved for 27 months.”
“In that time, the IRS approved perhaps dozens of applications from similar liberal and progressive groups, a USA TODAY review of IRS data shows.”
This point remains regardless of the existence of BOLO lists allegedly “targeting” liberal groups. The IRS’ behavior was still clearly discriminatory.
But the Administration would like Americans to believe that the IRS is incompetent—and apolitical. So would Holly Paz. In her Congressional interview, IRS official Paz played the incompetence card. In a bold statement, she said that she didn’t understand that when the Cincinnati officials referred to Tea Party cases, they were only targeting conservatives. Instead, she said that the use of the words “Tea Party” were just a shorthand reference. “Yes. Just sort of a shorthand reference,” she said. “You know, I think they may have reference, you know, it’s like calling soda ‘Coke’ or, you know, tissue ‘Kleenex.’ They knew what they meant, and the issue was campaign intervention.”
Such comments are risible. Paz gave $4,000 to the Obama campaign in 2008; did her political biases color her good judgment? (IRS officials gave to Obama by a ratio of more than two to one in 2012, and overwhelmingly in 2008, according to Center for Responsive Politics data.) Perhaps their political biases colored their good judgment as well.
Roger Aronoff is the Editor of Accuracy in Media, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.