The Overreach of the IRS Overreach Narrative

Monday Salon published a “full accounting” of “how the media outrageously blew the IRS scandal.” This is the latest attempt by the left to dismiss an actual scandal as unfounded. But the claims of media overreach are couched in some pretty obvious overreach of their own.

Let’s start by not making the same mistake. Writer Alex Seitz-Wald is on safe ground when he points out that there is no demonstrable connection between what the IRS did and President Obama. For that reason, some early statements that this was Nixonian were, given what we know at the moment, overblown.

But the piece goes beyond making that point to the suggestion that the entire scandal is non-existent. Let’s walk through some of this:

While the initial reports about the IRS targeting looked pretty bad,
suggesting that agents singled out tax-exempt applications for Tea Party
and conservative groups for extra scrutiny, the media badly bungled the
controversy when supposedly sober journalists like Bob Woodward and
Chuck Todd jumped to conclusions and assumed the worst from day one.

Agents did single out tax-exempt applications for Tea Party and conservative groups for extra scrutiny. That is not in doubt.

Instead of doing more reporting to discover the true nature and context
of the IRS targeting, or at least waiting for their colleagues to do
some, the supposedly liberal mainstream press let their eagerness to
show they could be just as tough on a Democratic White House as a
Republican one get ahead of the facts.

To the extent they blamed the President without evidence, yes. But there is no context which can diminish the bad targeting of conservative groups which lasted two years and insured no Tea Party groups were approved in all of 2011.

We expect politicians to stretch reality to fit a narrative, but the press should be better. And they would have gotten away with it, too, had their narrative had the benefit of being true.

The underlying narrative was true and is still true. The IRS inappropriately targeted right-leaning political groups.

But now, almost two months later, we know that in fact the IRS targeted lots of different kinds of groups, not just conservative ones;

Now we have to divert ourselves for a moment. That link leads to a previous Salon article in which Seitz-Wald wrote this about targeting of multiple “kinds of groups”:

The scandal was based on the notion that the IRS singled out the
not-for-profit applications from Tea Party groups for extra scrutiny by
putting them on “BOLO lists” — lists of applications to “be on the
lookout for” — but now we’ve learned that the agency also targeted:
Groups that used “progressive” or “Occupy” in their names, pro-medical
marijuana groups, “Occupied Territory advocacy” organizations,
pro-Obamacare orgs, “newspaper entities,” open source software
advocates, and others that organized around reducing the national debt.
In other words, a wide range of groups spanning the ideological divide
and many existing outside of it.

He’s claiming that Tea Party groups weren’t the only ones being singled out. To support this he links to an AP story which opens “Leaders of progressive groups say they, too, faced long delays in
getting the Internal Revenue Service to approve their applications for
tax-exempt status but were not subjected to the same level of scrutiny
that tea party groups complained about
.” I’ve added the emphasis to the portion of that which did not make it into Seitz-Wald’s account.

A bit further down the story notes “Leaders of progressive groups said they, too, were asked detailed
questions about their activities, which took time and resources to
answer. But, several leaders said, they were not asked the inappropriate
questions listed in the inspector general’s report.
” So the earlier post Seitz-Wald links to suggest progressive groups got the same treatment is misleading. The source he links makes clear that was not the case but he fails to mention it.

Even more importantly, claims disseminated by Democrats about progressive groups being targeted by the IRS received a strong response from the Inspector General just a couple days later. Here is a small portion of what the IG wrote:

The “Progressives” criteria appeared on a section of the “Be On the Look
Out” (BOLO) spreadsheet labeled “Historical,” and, unlike other BOLO
entries, did not include instructions on how to refer cases that met the
criteria. While we have multiple sources of information corroborating
the use of Tea Party and other related criteria we described in our
report, including employee interviews, e-mails, and other documents, we
found no indication in any of these other materials that “Progressives”
was a term used to refer cases for scrutiny for political campaign

And the numbers support this claim since only 30 percent of “progressive” groups were given scrutiny compared to 100 percent of Tea Party applications. This is not at all the same.

So what did Alex Seitz-Wald write about the IG’s detailed response to claims that progressives got the same scrutiny? Nothing. His piece fails to mention it at all:

But now, almost two months later, we know that in fact the IRS targeted lots of different kinds of groups, not just conservative ones; that the only organizations whose tax-exempt statuses were actually denied were progressive ones;

The “progressive ones” were actually three state chapters of a single group which was judged to be a front for promoting Democratic candidates. Progressive groups were not rejected or scrutinized en masse.

that many of the targeted conservative groups legitimately crossed the line; that the IG’s report was limited to only Tea Party groups at congressional Republicans’ request;

Again, TIGTA found that of the 296 cases suspected of being excessively political 31 percent had no such indications in the file. Meanwhile a sample of cases not selected for extra scrutiny turned up 175 instances when they should have been so selected. In other words, a determination of which groups were selected (or not selected) for scrutiny was not based on evidence in the files. We did not see 100 percent of Tea Party and 9/12 groups get this added scrutiny because 100 percent of them deserved it.

and that the White House was in no way involved in the targeting and didn’t even know about it until shortly before the public did.

There is no proof the White House directed this activity. There were however plenty of opportunities for someone to make the White House aware of it prior to the awkward planted question when it was revealed by Lois Lerner.

In short, the entire scandal narrative was a fiction.

And there’s your progressive overreach in a nutshell. The entire narrative was decidedly not a fiction. The IRS targeting of Tea Party groups–which likely began with concerns expressed in left-leaning media outlets like the NY Times and NPR–was not treatment given across the board. Two individuals have pleaded the 5th rather than answer questions. And it’s still not clear why it took two years for the IRS to realize there was a very serious problem and clean up the mess. The media did overstep the facts early on, but Salon is making the opposite error, downplaying and indeed outright omitting clearly relevant facts.