For the last month, Republicans have been trying mightily to paint the IRS’s Tea Party targeting scheme as proof that the Obama administration is wielding its federal powers as a weapon against opponents. And, despite the lack of evidence, many reporters have readily embraced this storyline.
In recent days, though, several journalists have begun pushing back.The most remarked-upon example is Candy Crowley. On Sunday, Darrell Issa, chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, appeared on her CNN show, State of the Union. He claimed that the committee’s interviews with IRS employees in the Cincinnati branch office, which improperly singled out Tea Party groups for scrutiny, suggested that the effort “was coordinated right out of Washington headquarters” and provided excerpts of interviews that ostensibly support these allegations. But Crowley was wary. “I want to talk about how problematic it is to get excerpts, because we know that you interviewed these people probably for hours,” she said. “It’s hard for us to judge what’s going on.” She then highlighted a passage from one excerpted interview:
Congressional investigator: So is it your perspective that ultimately the responsible parties for the decisions that were reported by the IG are not in the Cincinnati office?
IRS employee #1: I don’t know how to answer that question. I mean, from an agent standpoint, we didn’t do anything wrong. We followed directions based on other people telling us what to do.
Congressional investigator: And you ultimately followed directions from Washington; is that correct?
IRS employee #1: If direction had come down from Washington, yes.
Congressional investigator: But with respect to the particular scrutiny that was given to Tea Party applications, those directions emanated from Washington; is that right?
IRS employee #1: I believe so.
“It’s totally not definitive,” Crowley continued. “You know that your critics say Republicans—and you in particular—cherry-pick information that go to your foregone conclusion. So it worries us to put this kind of stuff out. Can you not put the whole transcript out?” Issa replied that he planned to make the entire transcript public and predicted that congressional investigators would prove the targeting was “coordinated in all likelihood right out of Washington headquarters.” To which Crowley responded, “But as yet you don’t have that direct link.”
The Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta also deserves props for cutting through the breathless rhetoric. Last week, The Daily Caller reported that former IRS commissioner Doug Shulman had visited the Obama White House at least 157 times, a finding the Caller claimed “strongly suggests coordination by White House officials in the campaign against the president’s political opponents.” After taking a hard look at the Caller’s source documents, Franke-Ruta discovered that the conservative news site had skipped over important context. While Shulman had been cleared to attend 157 meetings, the vast majority of those clearances were for meetings with officials involved in implementing Obama’s healthcare law—an effort in which the IRS plays a major role. Moreover, Shulman apparently only attended a fraction of them. As Franke-Ruta wrote:
Indeed, of the 157 events Shulman was cleared to attend, White House records only provide time of arrival information—confirming that he actually went to them—for 11 events over the 2009-2012 period.
Poof. There goes the Caller’s theory.
But the Caller is hardly the only news organization to reach for a White House connection in recent days. ABC, NBC, Fox, and The Washington Post have all tried to tie the scandal to Washington, too. Fox Anchor Jenna Lee kicked off a May 29 segment by claiming that recent revelations raised “troubling new questions about the IRS and whether the administration is using the powerful tax agency to intimidate political enemies.” The camera then cut to reporter Douglas McKelway, who argued that official claims that the targeting originated in Cincinnati were “completely bogus” and asserted that Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, had letters that pointed “to a much higher authority.” Sekulow later appeared in the segment, alongside a chyron that read, “LETTERS SHOW HIGHER-UPS AT IRS TARGETED CONSERVATIVE GROUPS.” “I don’t know what the Department of the Treasury, I don’t know what IRS, I don’t know what the White House is thinking,” he said. “We’ve got the documents because we’ve been in dialogue with the IRS for a year and a half.” The specific contents of the letters were never discussed, nor were they ever shown.