WSJ minimizes the latest IRS news

A solid reporter's story gives curiously short shrift to fresh facts. Meanwhile, what was the IG directed to find?

When the latest revelations in the IRS political targeting controversy—the fact that nonprofit applications from groups whose names suggested they were allied with liberal or progressive causes were marked for extra scrutiny, just as those from Tea Party and other conservative organizations were—came out on Monday, they were treated as big news by the nation’s biggest newspapers. “IRS workers were told to flag ‘progressive’ groups, memos show,” was the headline in the Los Angeles Times. “Documents Show Liberals in I.R.S. Dragnet,” declared the headline in The New York Times. “Taken together, the documents seem to change the terms of a scandal that exploded over accusations that the I.R.S. had tried to stifle a nascent conservative political movement,” read Jonathan Martin’s story in the NYT.

The framing of accounts from The Washington Post, USA Today, and The Associated Press was perhaps a little less pointed, but all told the story clearly. Here’s the opening of Zachary Goldfarb’s article in the Post, which includes a telling detail on the timing of events:

The Internal Revenue Service said in a report released Monday that it had been scrutinizing a broad array of groups seeking tax-exempt status — and a congressional committee revealed that at least some of those groups were screened because they had the word “progressive” in their names.

The IRS had been using what it called “be on the lookout” lists that targeted groups for scrutiny based partly on their names as recently as this month. Principal deputy commissioner Daniel Werfel, whom President Obama chose to lead the agency when a controversy broke out last month about tax officials targeting conservative groups for scrutiny, put an end to the practice shortly after joining the IRS.

The IRS previously had said that it stopped selecting conservative groups for review based on terms such as “tea party” or “patriot” last year. But the practice continued for other groups, the agency said in a report Monday that identified “significant management and judgement failures” that had led to the initial targeting of conservatives.

But there was also a clear outlier, a major paper that offered coverage which minimized the new political angle—The Wall Street Journal. The Journal article carries the anodyne headline, “IRS Halts Political Screening of Groups.” Here’s the opening of the story, as it initially appeared online Monday:

The Internal Revenue Service said Monday it was suspending the use of screening criteria of the type that lead to heavy-handed scrutiny of tea-party groups, and Democrats said liberal groups were among those targeted.

The IRS inspector general said last month that agency workers used inappropriate criteria—such as flagging groups with terms such as “tea party” and “patriot” in their names—to select applications for tax exempt state for special time-consuming review. IRS employees also targeted groups focused on issues such as government spending or debt.

So there is an acknowledgment in the lede—albeit, one attributed to what “Democrats said”—that not only applications from conservative groups were flagged. But the focus promptly shifts back to older news about targeting of Tea Party groups. Not until the fifth paragraph of a relatively brief story did Journal readers learn that “congressional Democrats late Monday released new IRS documents showing self-described ‘progressive’ groups also were scrutinized.” At least the Journal did update the lede of the online version Monday evening, and for the later print editions Tuesday: “Democrats said” became “documents showed.” (Here are the documents in question, which were linked by the NYT and The Washington Post.)

To be fair, it’s possible that the initial “Democrats said” formulation of the lede appeared because the key documents weren’t yet available. But the Journal didn’t offer that explanation, or any explanation. On Tuesday morning, I called the reporter—John McKinnon, a solid journalist whose reporting has been on my must-read list for years—because the article’s overall tone, focus on old news, and vague attribution was so uncharacteristic of his work.

McKinnon immediately referred my questions to Dow Jones public relations staff. He called back shortly with a name and number to call, but would say nothing more.

Dow Jones spokeswoman Colleen Schwartz told me several hours later that McKinnon would not be made available for an interview—I had offered to let her listen in as I spoke to the reporter—and that the company would have no comment. It was a good example of how media organizations often do not hold themselves to the same standards of transparency they expect of other news sources and subjects.

It’s worth repeating, too, that even if the timing of events explains the weak phrasing of the initial Journal lede, the paper’s final story underplays the significance of the information released Monday, and how it shapes the public understanding of the IRS controversy.

There was one important nugget tucked in the WSJ story, though. McKinnon wrote:

The top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Sander Levin (D., Mich.), said lawmakers should find out why the inspector general focused only on targeting of conservative groups.

Why indeed? Reporters like CNN’s Dana Bash started pursuing that question on Tuesday, and got the beginning of an answer that takes the story in a new direction.

As Bash reported in a segment that included an interview with Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), chair of the House Oversight Committee, the spokesperson for Inspector General J. Russell George’s spokesperson said the audit had “focused on conservatives because that is what the Republican-led committee asked him to do.”

The statement from George’s office that Issa asked for a report focused on targeting of conservatives—a request with clear partisan implications—raises questions about whether the congressman intended to create a scandal. Journalists covering the story should press Issa and George on these questions. It’s time for some more skepticism, and for reporters to remember the old adage: Fool me twice, shame on me.

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David Cay Johnston covers fiscal and budget matters for CJR’s United States Project. He is a reporter with 46 years of experience, including 13 at The New York Times; a columnist for Tax Analysts; teaches tax and regulatory law at Syracuse University Law School; and is president of Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE). Follow him on Twitter @DavidCayJ. Tags: , , , , , ,