Back in May 2013, corporate media outlets expressed alarm at a report from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) that suggested that from 2004 through 2013, the IRS had applied extra scrutiny to groups applying for tax-exempt status with conservative-sounding names. The report, “based on concerns expressed by members of Congress,” said that 96 groups applying for 501(c)(4) exemptions had been targeted for heightened questioning because of terms like “Tea Party” and “Patriots” in their names.
For Peggy Noonan (Wall Street Journal, 5/17/13), the smoking gun was a fact she made up: “Only conservative groups were targeted, not liberal.”
Media harshly condemned the reported targeting, with Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal (5/17/13) calling it “the worst Washington scandal since Watergate,” one that “threatens the basic integrity of our government.” The former Reagan speechwriter wrote:
It is not even remotely possible that all this was an accident, a mistake. Again, only conservative groups were targeted, not liberal.
Bill O’Reilly and Fox News devoted countless hours covering congressional hearings on testimonies from IRS officials, and Fox Insider devoted pages to speculative and conspiratorial articles with headlines like “‘Caught Red-Handed’” and “‘Sounds Like Chicago Justice.’”
The condemnation was not limited to conservative news sources. The New York Times (5/16/13) played up the IRS targeting as a part of a trio of emerging scandals for the Obama administration, along with the Benghazi attacks and the seizure of journalists’ phone records at the Associated Press. The Washington Post‘s Karen Tumulty (5/15/13) contributed to the hand-wringing about the president’s “scandal trifecta.”
“The most corrosive political scandals are the ones that feed a preexisting story line,” wrote Karen Tumulty (Washington Post, 5/15/13) as she fed a pre-existing storyline.
As the scandal broke, FAIR’s Peter Hart (5/17/13) noted discrepancies between USA Today’s coverage in their print and web articles covering the scandal: While the print version was headlined “IRS Gave a Pass to Liberals,” the web version elaborated on the scrutiny IRS gave Roots Action—a progressive group launched by FAIR founder Jeff Cohen—when it applied for a 501(c)(4) exemption.
The following month (7/24/13), the IRS released heavily redacted documents that showed that during the 2004–13 period, the IRS also targeted groups with progressive-sounding names that applied for 501(c)(4) status, flagging terms like “Occupy,” “Progressive,” “Green Energy” and “ACORN Successors,” among 13 others, for further review.
There was minimal coverage of the new information (FAIR.org, 9/25/13), though the New York Times’ Jonathan Weisman (9/24/13) commented that “the new IRS documents raise questions about how the controversy has been portrayed.” Conservative outlets like the Washington Times (6/27/13) continued to feed the narrative of an abuse of executive power directed at Obama’s political opponents.
Now a new TIGTA report (9/28/17) confirms the targeting of progressive groups. In fact, the new report makes clear that not only were progressive groups scrutinized, they were in fact targeted more than conservative groups. A New York Times headline (10/5/17) noted that “In Targeting Political Groups, IRS Crossed Party Lines,” but the article did not elaborate on prior media coverage of the scandal.
The Washington Post (10/5/17) did include some media criticism, singling out CNN and Fox News in particular for their misleading coverage of the issue—but didn’t recall its own portraying the supposed IRS bias as part of a “scandal trifecta.”