Journal Isn’t Telling Whole Story About IRS “Scandal”

March 14th, 2014 · 2 Comments · campaign finance reform, journalism

By Arthur Alpert

You’ve probably noticed I shy away from writing about the major political parties. There are several reasons. One is my working premise that both parties respond to their corporate underwriters.  And there’s a practical concern – were I to condemn Albuquerque Journal editors for tilting toward Party A, it might read as if I’m siding with Party B.

Yet I will risk being misunderstood here because there’s lots at stake in the Journal’s campaign to persuade readers there’s an IRS “scandal” involving discrimination against right-wing groups.

What’s at stake is not just journalistic malpractice but a dire civic problem. We’ll take them in order.

Of course, there could be such a scandal. Heck, it wouldn’t be the first time the IRS violated citizens’ rights. Thus far, however, I don’t know if it exists.

What I do know is the Journal isn‘t telling the whole story.

First, let’s recap recent campaign events. Journal editors ran a Victor Davis Hanson syndicated column Feb. 19 in which he stated the “scandal” allegations as fact and tied the IRS to George Orwell’s Big Brother.

Next, March 6, the editors ran a three-paragraph brief on A3 headlined  “Ex-IRS boss takes 5th, again”, which reported as fact the IRS “improperly singled out Tea Party and other conservative groups.”

And March 9 they printed a George Will essay in which he accepted the “scandal” as fact and blamed the President for it.

It’s noteworthy that Hanson, Will and the Journal are relaying the House Committee leadership’s allegations and (perhaps) information from others allied with the leadership.

There’s nothing from the House minority. And nothing from journalists covering the story.

We’ll get to what reporters have unearthed, but first let’s consider the source of the IRS “scandal.”

He’s Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican whose past includes beating charges of grand theft auto and arson. For a glimpse into Issa’s criminal and political biography, and informed speculation on his role in harassing Barack Obama, see Ryan Lizza’s celebrated “Don’t look Back” in the January 24, 2011 New Yorker.

There’s been no questioning of Issa’s bona fides from Hanson, Will or the Journal.

Next, let’s look at what the IRS is accused of.

Per law, IRS staffers screened groups applying for tax-exempt status, of which there were lots following the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision.

As Hanson, Will and the Journal have reported, they flagged for special scrutiny groups whose names contained “Tea Party” or “Patriot”.

As Hanson and Will have not reported, the IRS also flagged for special scrutiny groups with the word “progressive” and “Occupy” in their names. The Journal published one AP account in which that was mentioned but minimized June 27, 2013.

Nor have Hanson and Will questioned whether the Internal Revenue Code’s 501(c) (4) category, which gives tax-exemptions to “social welfare” organizations and permits them to keep secret the names of their donors, makes sense or furthers fair elections.

To his and the Journal’s credit, Thomas Cole has written about how this works, including an Oct. 31, 2013 UpFront column headlined “Group attacking Brooks has ties to governor, GOP”.

My point – my civic point – is that distinguishing between social welfare groups and groups out to sway elections is near-impossible, as is determining what percentage of a group’s efforts go to “social welfare” and what to politicking.

And this citizen cannot imagine why anybody would want the IRS to make those judgments.

But let’s get back to what Hanson, Will and the Journal don’t know or don’t want us to know.

According to Joan Walsh, Salon.com’s editor at large, “So far the only known group to lose its tax-exemption was a Democratic group, Emerge America, which works to elect Democratic women to public office.”

We haven’t read that in the Albuquerque Journal.

Walsh was writing March 6, the same day the Journal ran the three-graph brief cited above. So let’s see Walsh’s version.

She notes former IRS supervisor Lois Lerner came to Rep, Issa’s hearing prepared to “share her answers to the committee’s questions via what’s called a ‘proffer.’ That’s when the subject of an investigation reveals the rough outlines of what they know, which can also help determine whether they deserve immunity from prosecution (in order to get them to share more).

“But Issa rejected the proffer and staged a show trial designed to have Lerner take the Fifth again, in front of television cameras and a packed hearing room.”

How did the Journal miss all that?

Walsh also tells us Rep. Issa cut the microphone on the panel’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings and left the room. She called it “thuggish.”

And miss that?

Though Walsh is hardly neutral, her view of the episode may have value:

“So why would Issa reject that proffer if he was committed to learning the truth about the IRS “scandal”? Because from the beginning he’s known it wasn’t a scandal. From the beginning Issa has selectively leaked testimony and other evidence from his committee’s investigation to Fox News – which he treats as a fourth arm of government — consistently distorting the facts.”

Whoa! We’re not Kansas anymore, Toto. Walsh has taken us to another Cosmos.

But she’s just one observer, right? Well, no. That same March 6, David Firestone of the N.Y. Times editorial board wrote, in  “Why Darrell Issa Turned Off the Mic”:

“There was a good reason Mr. Issa cut off his colleague. For months he has been on a single-minded crusade to prove the Obama administration ordered the I.R.S. to target conservative and Republican groups that spent unlimited secret money on political activity in 2012. He has accused the I.R.S. of targeting Americans for their political beliefs, a very serious charge for which he has produced not the slightest piece of evidence, clearly hoping that if he says it often enough, and loud enough, the message will sink in.”

“But Mr. Cummings has very effectively prevented that message from becoming accepted wisdom….”

I suspect Mr. Firestone is wrong, that most Americans believe the IRS singled out rightists. And if Albuquerque Journal readers doubt that narrative, it’s despite the editors’ best efforts.

Me, I figure Rep. Issa has acted thuggishly and both Hanson and Will are acting as partisans but – and here comes the dire civic problem cited earlier – there is a scandal. It’s our laws and regulations governing political activity.

As journalism professor Thomas Edsall wrote in the N.Y. Times Feb. 25 (‘Why the IRS Scandal Won’t Go Away”), Issa’s full-court press has slowed progress by campaign reform advocates to limit the fallout from Citizens United.

So, he concludes, “the big players will in all probability skate. Karl Rove and Charles and David Koch are unlikely to see their tax-exempt political organizations reined in or to see any restraints placed on the tremendous financial clout of their 501c independent expenditure groups, clout made possible by their adroit use of the “social welfare” designation and by an aggressive, unyielding approach to campaign-finance law and I.R.S. regulations.”

Ah, so it’s not about the IRS being selectively mean. Nor is it about political parties, not directly. It is about the system that encourages the most affluent Americans to buy influence with Republicans and Democrats.

And it’s about New Mexico’s largest daily, which isn’t telling the whole story.

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • cres cendo

    Regardless of your very fair treatment of the Journal, many people recognize that it has an anti-Hispanic, pr0-Republican, pro-conservative and especially a pro-corporate bias.

  • Denise Tessier

    Excellent summary, Arthur.

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