During the annual meeting of the American Bar Association in May 2013, a senior official at the Internal Revenue Service named Lois Lerner divulged information she knew would be released in a forthcoming report by the tax agency’s inspector general. She preemptively apologized for what she called the “inappropriate” scrutiny of conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status, which came under her bailiwick as the director of the IRS Exempt Organizations Division. The revelation that the IRS was targeting conservative political organizations in an obvious attempt to throttle their right to free expression opened the lid on a Pandora’s Box of inappropriate, unethical, and perhaps illegal tactics, the implications of which continue to plague the current administration 20 months later.
Nearly a year after the story broke, the columnist and commentator George Will observed that Lerner’s admissions exposed a scandal that rivaled any of those of the late 20th century. Watergate and Iran-Contra, two scandals that Will noted had afflicted Republican presidents, were determinedly covered from every angle by an energetic press corps.
The relentless investigation of those two history-shaping controversies resulted in the end of a president’s political career and the neutering of a second. They also shaped the worldview of a generation of journalists. Reporters united around the proud assumption that their calling was, and remains, to take aim at the political chicanery of the nation’s elected officials and the bureaucrats who work for them.
The spring of 2013 saw a proliferation of scandalous revelations about the conduct of Barack Obama’s administration—and the mainstream-media response has shattered the suppositions in the press corps’s weltanschauung. For, as Will pointedly noted, the IRS scandal has not been pursued with equal fervor. Of all the controversial revelations of 2013, from the news that White House operatives may have altered the Benghazi talking points to the discovery that the National Security Agency was collecting and warehousing the communications records of average Americans, the details involving the targeting of conservative groups by the most intrusive agency of the federal government was by far the most egregious. But the abuse of the immense power at the Internal Revenue Service’s disposal was a story that burned white hot for only a short time. Remarkably, the fire was quickly doused when Obama insisted that the story had run its course. The Washington press corps, 90 percent of whose members probably voted for Obama if previous data about their attitudes are accurate, were entirely happy to follow his direction.
Surely, it had been Lois Lerner’s intention to defuse the politically explosive ramifications of the scandal when she begged forgiveness for her department’s misuse of authority even before anyone knew what had happened. But the significance of her disclosure, along with the illuminating discovery that she had actually planted the question to which she had responded, was immediately apparent. Lerner had sought to get ahead of events, but events nevertheless quickly spiraled out of her control.
The report she had known was coming, from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, revealed that the IRS division overseeing tax-exempt status had applied “inappropriate criteria” to organizations whose names included the words Tea Party or patriot. The result of this scrutiny was to forestall or delay indefinitely the approval of tax-exempt status for a number of these groups and to limit their ability to be politically active in the 2012 presidential election cycle.
The White House immediately sought to distance itself. “The IRS, as you know, is an independent enforcement agency with only two political appointees,” said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on May 10, the day Lerner apologized. “The fact of the matter is what we know about this is of concern. And we certainly find the actions taken, as reported, to be inappropriate.”
In spite of Carney’s best efforts, the grave implications in the acknowledgment that the IRS had strategically limited the ability of conservative groups to exercise their right to participate in politics forced President Obama to speak on the matter three days later. “I can tell you that if you’ve got the IRS operating in anything less than a neutral and nonpartisan way, then that is outrageous, it is contrary to our traditions, and people have to be held accountable and it’s got to be fixed,” Obama insisted. His denunciation was convincing. And he seemed to acknowledge the self-evident gravity of the charge that the First Amendment rights of conservative groups had been curtailed, though he added that he “first learned about this from the same news reports that I think most people learned about this.”
The president may not have known of the IRS abuses before anyone else, but his administration certainly had known. The White House later revealed that White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler was informed of the targeting scandal a month earlier, in April. Carney eventually disclosed that there had been discussions between the Treasury Department and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Mark Childress about how best to neutralize the political impact of the revelations. Carney assured the press, however, that Obama never demanded to know from his staff why he had learned of these scandalous revelations only from news reports.
The media’s interest in the IRS scandal waned as it became apparent that the president was insulated from direct culpability for any abuses. The IRS insisted, and CNN later repeated, that the responsibility for the targeting rested with two “rogue” IRS employees in a far-flung Cincinnati outpost. Those two rogues, moreover, had “already been disciplined” by IRS acting commissioner Steven Miller. On May 15, Obama held a press conference in which he announced that, along with the two “rogue” employees, Miller was also to be jettisoned. “Americans are right to be angry about it, and I am angry about it,” Obama said of the apparent IRS abuses. “I will not tolerate this kind of behavior in any agency, but especially in the IRS.”
One of those two employees later insisted, in transcripts provided to the Wall Street Journal, that a Washington-based IRS attorney named Carter Hull “closely oversaw” their work. Another “rogue” IRS official who had been implicated insisted that “Washington D.C. [had] wanted some cases” heavily scrutinized.
No matter. The IRS targeting scandal was almost instantly re-framed as a dive down into a bureaucratic rabbit hole with no obvious villains, save the confusion that resulted from the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. By opening the door to political spending by nonprofit organizations, had not the Court made the excessive scrutiny of some newly eligible tax-exempt groups inevitable?
On May 23, Lerner appeared before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and invoked her Fifth Amendment rights, though she did so after delivering a speech asserting her innocence. Decades of congressional precedent dictated that by doing so, Lerner had waived her right to take the Fifth. Committee Chair Darrell Issa took no action against her.
The lack of clarity created by Lerner’s silence, and the confusion on Capitol Hill about how to proceed, offered the president a way to diminish the significance of all the scandals in which his administration had become embroiled. At a campaign-style event in late June, Obama shifted from insisting that the revelations regarding the targeting of conservatives made him “angry” to dismissing them as just one in a series of “phony scandals.”
By this point, the media largely agreed with the president. But that had not previously been the case. When the scandal first broke, the political press was incensed by the damning implications surrounding the IRS’s actions.
It is testament to the potency of the initial revelations about the IRS targeting scandal that the press was deeply critical of Obama for failing to address it immediately (recall that he waited three days to speak). The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza contrasted his silence with the more timely comments of other Democratic officeholders, such as Montana’s then senator, Max Baucus, who said the allegations were an “outrageous abuse of power,” and West Virginia senator Joe Manchin, who went so far as to call the IRS’s actions “un-American.” But, as Cillizza noted, the White House was already in the midst of working to mitigate politically damaging revelations about the response to the September 2012 attack on the Benghazi outpost—as though that were an acceptable excuse. Cillizza wondered whether Obama’s words had been “too little, too late.”
Cillizza’s critique of the White House typified how a majority of the press initially viewed this scandal. It was an outrage that spoke directly to the journalist’s raison d’être, forged in the eras of Watergate and Iran-Contra, and it must be responded to with vigor.
“A truly Nixonian abuse of power by the Obama administration,” wrote ABC News host Terry Moran in reaction to the revelations.
“It’s time for action,” NBC newsman Tom Brokaw demanded of the president.
“It didn’t seem like they had a sense of urgency about it, a real sense of outrage,” NBC’s White House correspondent Chuck Todd agreed. “This is outrageous no matter what political party you are.”
“This is tyranny,” MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough said of the “unspeakable” abuses by the IRS on his morning news program, which is appointment television inside the Beltway. “This time it’s real.”
“There is a reasonable fear by all of us, by any of us, that the kind of power the IRS has could be misused,” MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow concurred, noting that the scrutiny that Tea Party groups faced was “not fair.”
Even Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart initially ran for the lifeboats. Observing that the scandal had removed “the last arrow in your pro-governance quiver,” Stewart said the IRS’s disclosure cast doubt on Obama’s “managerial competence” and had vindicated “conspiracy theorists,” shifting the burden of proof for their wild accusations away from them and onto federal authorities.
Only a few of the president’s most stalwart supporters came to his defense. After observing that the “overtly racist” Tea Party represented the “Taliban wing of American politics,” NAACP chairman emeritus Julian Bond was among a handful of commentators calling the targeting of conservative groups a “legitimate” enterprise.
But the passion with which the press had originally approached the IRS story ebbed. Less than a week after the scandal broke, the new exculpatory notion that the IRS had merely been confused by the new rules in the already suspect Citizens United decision began to take hold in left-leaning press outlets. MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, who on May 14 scolded the administration for being unable to see “how wrong the government has been,” suddenly insisted on May 15 that “the IRS agents in this case did nothing wrong.”
It was not long before this idea—that the IRS was guilty only of doing its job too well—crossed over from liberal blogs and cable-news channels into respected publications and broadcast media outlets.
The IRS scandal had the further misfortune of breaking amid revelations that White House staffers had scrubbed references to Islamic terrorism from the talking points about the Benghazi attack. Scandal fatigue began to set in as the administration became engulfed in yet another imbroglio—this time about the targeting of the media, with the Department of Justice going after journalists at Fox News and the Associated Press. The proliferation of outrageous revelations fragmenting the media’s attention almost instantly created its own backlash, and provided Obama’s Republican critics with an embarrassment of riches.
The members of the political press, who had covered the IRS scandal with such vehemence a week prior, were now devoting more scrutiny to how Obama’s Republican critics might “overplay their hand.” From CBS News’s Charlie Rose to Fox News Channel’s Chris Wallace to CNN’s Dana Bash and Jake Tapper, the genuine concern about the corruption of the IRS evolved into faux apprehension about the GOP’s overreaching and further alienating the public.
By late June, the news media’s dogged focus had shifted from investigating the abuses to which the IRS admitted to uncovering details that might absolve the tax-collection agency of wrongdoing. Daniel Werfel, the new acting commissioner of the IRS, provided House Democrats with a report that they subsequently released to the press that indicated the tax-exemption investigators had also been instructed to watch various buzzwords like progressive and occupy as well as patriot and Tea Party. Liberal groups “were listed just as frequently as everyone else,” asserted the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein. This development “kind of takes the legs off the other story,” MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski insisted.
The broader political press largely agreed, despite continuing evidence to the contrary. Indeed, when the House Ways and Means Committee leaked emails from Lerner in which she discussed the “dangerous” quality of Tea Party tax-exempt applications, Slate’s David Weigel wondered whether anyone would care. The details that had obscured the once clear-cut story of malfeasance at the IRS, he wrote in referring to a measure of TV popularity, “[had] lowered the Q-rating of the story.”
In September, after having been on leave for months, Lerner resigned from her position as the head of the division overseeing tax-exempt applications. The media, which had already written off the scandal, yawned.
The IRS targeting story lay dormant in all but conservative media before it was resuscitated this February, when the president sat down for an interview with Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly. Pressed, Obama insisted that there was “not even a smidgen of corruption” at the IRS. The president was merely echoing a sentiment that had become gospel among left-of-center journalists in the intervening months: The targeting of conservative groups, they argued, had been neither irresponsible nor unusual.
Disinclined to allow the scandalous revelations to fade into obscurity, House investigators again called Lerner to testify in March, where she again asserted her Fifth Amendment rights. House Republicans announced that they planned to vote to recommend that Lerner face criminal charges for her role in the targeting scandal. On May 7, the House of Representatives passed a resolution recommending that Attorney General Eric Holder appoint a special counsel to investigate the IRS’s actions, and also voted in favor of holding Lerner in contempt of Congress.
The House Oversight Committee went on to release more of Lerner’s emails to the press. These communications indicated that Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings’s office had coordinated with the IRS and received details of a pending tax-exempt application by the voter-integrity organization True the Vote. Cummings was the ranking Democrat on the Oversight Committee and had been notable over the course of the investigation for the raging contempt with which he treated it. The coordination between his office and the IRS, Chairman Issa asserted, cast doubt on Cummings’s “motivations for trying to bring this investigation to a premature end.”
Further communications records, uncovered by Freedom of Information Act requests, indicated that Lerner had looked into referring conservative groups that submitted inaccurate applications for criminal prosecution—at the request of Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.
In one email, Lerner joked to colleagues about seeking an open role at the political wing of Obama’s eternally active campaign apparatus, Organizing for Action. This implicit admission of political allegiance would have appalled the press corps, had the political affiliations in question been reversed. But the media was firmly settled into the collective impression that the IRS targeting scandal was no scandal at all. The emails landed with a thud.
The new rules governing how 501(c)(4) organizations can operate are indeed complex. Many of these groups do regularly skirt the rules dictating just how much of their operations should be directed toward public policy rather than political action. But every piece of evidence suggests that conservative groups—many of them yet to receive their tax-exempt status—were subjected to an unequal level of scrutiny compared with their liberal counterparts. Indeed, that was what Lerner had acknowledged on the very first day of the scandal, and what the IRS’s own inspector general had found.
The media’s incurious approach to this chilling chapter in American politics, and the animated way in which they went about attempting to uncover details that might clear the White House of complicity, is telling. Not long ago, the political press viewed “Speaking Truth to Power” as among its highest callings. Even without the promise of acclaim, the press could at least once have been counted on to expose the encumbering of free speech, particularly if that condition was the result of an illegal directive issued by an absurdly powerful institution such as the IRS.
The death of this noble calling is yet another lamentable development of the Obama era, but not to worry—it is probably safe to expect journalistic instincts to return with enthusiasm should a Republican retake the White House in 2016. It is, after all, far easier to pursue malfeasance when the president is someone you didn’t vote for.