Shifting the goalposts on the IRS scandal

A critic tries to reinterpret the controversy

The Weekly Standard’s Mark Hemingway objected Friday to my latest CJR post in a goalpost-shifting effort titled, “The Campaign to Wish Away the IRS Scandal.” The steep dropoff in coverage of the controversy even as new facts emerged is unremarkable, Hemingway argues, because later developments “didn’t fundamentally change the perception of what was driving the scandal.”

Despite his assertions, the evidence to date of disparate IRS treatment of groups on different ends of the political spectrum is not consistent with the initial coverage (which frequently suggested conservatives were targeted exclusively) or with the early hype from Obama’s opponents (who intimated IRS inquiries might be part of a politically motivated effort directed by the White House). Reporters should investigate whether conservative groups who applied for tax-exempt status received disproportionate scrutiny, but the fact remains that the impression left by the early coverage was far more simplistic and sensationalized than the state of the evidence today.

Hemingway offers two principal rejoinders to my piece. First, he concedes my point that “there is no credible evidence of White House involvement in targeting conservative groups,” but dismisses any speculation along these lines as inevitable and understandable:

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.

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 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…

The possibility of White House involvement was taken seriously enough by the media that CNN ran a poll on the topic in early June. At the time, nearly half of Americans said they believed “senior White House officials ordered the IRS to target those political groups for greater scrutiny.”

Second, Hemingway asserts that our initial understanding of the scandal has not changed at all:

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.

Contrary to Hemingway’s assertions, however, the early coverage typically left the impression that conservative groups were the only ones being selected for scrutiny due to their names or political affiliations. News articles after the initial disclosure emphasized that the IRS had “singled out” or was “targeting” conservative groups using keywords. This impression was reinforced by the initial report from the Treasury Department’s inspector general, which reportedly “focused almost exclusively” on groups affiliated with the Tea Party movement. If such a procedure had only been directed at conservative groups, the evidence that the IRS was giving unfair or disproportionate scrutiny would be clear.

Later revelations that many types of groups, including liberal ones, were selected for targeting based on keywords—as the inspector general eventually conceded—shifted the direction of the story. Without clear evidence that the procedure was used to target conservatives for political reasons or that it was directed by the White House, the charges are far less explosive. As a result, the media’s attention shifted elsewhere, as I showed, giving the issue little coverage and leaving the public with a mistaken impression of the state of the evidence.

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!

However, the lingering possibility that misconduct may yet be uncovered does not excuse the way that outlets stopped devoting sustained coverage to the story, which presumably left most readers with a simplistic—and perhaps incorrect—understanding of events. Journalists need to do a better job cleaning up their own messes.

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Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at and tweets @BrendanNyhan. Tags: , , , , , ,