Accuracy in Media

A Salon article, which argues that the IRS scandal really isn’t one and that the news media have been journalistically irresponsible, has precipitated a “cat fight” on the Left between Salon and MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell. “I said repeatedly that the fake IRS scandal was fueled by a compliant and lazy political media,” asserted O’Donnell on his July 8 show.

“And then comes Salon today pretending that it is taking a brave and lonely stance against the Washington media’s brief infatuation with the so-called IRS scandal without mentioning that the idea for the piece is unoriginal, that the basic idea that the piece advances has already been pushed relentlessly on this program for two months,” he said.

As Accuracy in Media has previously reported, O’Donnell believes that the real IRS scandal is that in 1959 the Treasury Department issued a regulation that requires 501(c)4s to engage “primarily” in social welfare activities rather than “exclusively.” This allowed them to get into the business of politics, and it was downhill from there, he argues.

At Accuracy in Media, we believe that the real scandal is that conservatives were disproportionately targeted by the IRS, and singled out for unfair treatment and scrutiny into their Facebook postings, membership lists, meeting minutes, donor lists, and other data. So far, stories have not come out about progressive groups being subjected to the same level of treatment that “Tea Party,” “Patriot,” or “9/12” groups have faced, although an exception may be made for open source groups, according to The New York Times. (The IRS believes that these groups may be engaging as profit-making enterprises despite their sought-after exemptions, the Grey Lady reports).

But this makes little difference to Salon writer Alex Seitz-Wald, who has bandied about the idea that the IRS scandal is “a textbook example of how the scandal narrative can dominate Washington and cable news even when there is no actual scandal.” He argues that “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.”

To the contrary, Seitz-Wald argues, “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; 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; 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.”

By lots of different groups,” Seitz-Wald means that the IRS issued “Be On the Lookout Lists” (BOLO) for groups with “progressive,” “occupy,” open 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 writes. The acting IRS commissioner, Daniel Werfel, has since chosen to suspend the use of all BOLO lists by the unit that handles tax-exempt applications.

While on the surface it may seem that this controversy has become moot because multiple groups and multiple ideologies were targeted—not just conservatives—this is not the case. “Our audit did not find evidence that the IRS used the ‘progressives’ identifier as selection criteria for potential political cases between May 2010 and May 2012,” Inspector General J. Russell George has said. He concluded that, conversely, “our audit found that 100 percent of the tax-exempt applications with Tea Party, Patriots, or 9/12 in their names were processed as potential political cases” (emphasis added).

And, “While we have multiple sources of information corroborating the use of Tea Party and other related criteria we described in our report…we found no indication in any of these other materials that ‘Progressives’ was a term used to refer cases for scrutiny for political campaign intervention,” George said. So, according to the Inspector General, conservatives were targeted and progressives were not—even if a BOLO list for the latter did exist.

But “the only organizations whose tax-exempt statuses were actually denied were progressive ones,” writes Seitz-Wald. He links to a 2011 article about three groups that were devoted to “cultivating female political leaders for local, state and federal government.” The catch: “Their Web sites ask for evidence that participants in their training programs are Democrats,” according to The New York Times. In other words, they were training exclusively Democratic candidates. Of course they were denied.

The conservative groups explored by the Times, whose applications were held up, were sponsoring get-out-the-vote training dedicated to the “defeat of Barack Obama” and sending out emails to members about Mitt Romney campaign events. There may have been legitimate reasons for the conservative groups to garner further scrutiny from the IRS, but did that really apply to all of the 292 conservative groups targeted?

“The IG’s failure to be forthcoming in the audit, and at Congressional hearings, even when asked directly if there was a screening list for progressives, and whether progressive groups were included among the 298 applications reviewed by TIGTA [Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration] has contributed to the distortion of the entire investigation,” Rep. Sander Levin (D-MI), contended, “including use of innuendo and totally unsubstantiated assertions of White House involvement.”

“But on that very same day Mr. George sent a letter remedying his oversight, explaining that tax-status applications of six left-wing groups were delayed, too, while 292 conservative groups were targeted,” explains The Washington Times in an editorial. That’s quite a difference in numbers.

“In an analysis posted on his legal blog Witnesseth, Pepperdine University law professor Robert Anderson found that 95 percent of the IRS lawyers who made political donations during the 2012 presidential race gave their money to President Obama,” wrote the Times. “This, too, must have been a coincidence.”

“The fact that they say ‘we also interviewed some progressive groups,’ that’s a wink, wink, nod, nod,” asserted Rep. Mike Kelley (R-PA) in an interview with “I think that was just a light run-through. That didn’t go anywhere near the depth of the information they had when it came to Tea Party groups, ‘Patriot’ groups.”

But for O’Donnell and Seitz-Wald, this remains a manufactured non-scandal for which the media deserves a scolding. The same goes for MSNBC host Karen Finney, who referred to it as a “so-called scandal that turned out to be about a guy in Cincinnati who was trying to determine if these groups qualified for tax-exempt status so they could keep the names of their donors secret.”

If there is no scandal, then why did President Barack Obama called the IRS actions “outrageous” and “unacceptable?” Why did White House spokesman Jay Carney call the IRS action “inappropriate?” And yes, why did Lois Lerner, and other IRS officials proactively apologize for behavior that, apparently, no one should bat an eye at? This type of reporting simply doesn’t make sense

O’Donnell emphasized in his rantings that the three top-rated shows on MSNBC—his, Rachel Maddow’s, and Chris Hayes—were the leaders on this “non-scandal” story. It’s not surprising that Seitz-Wald wasn’t up to date on what they’d said on the shows. “The second quarter was an especially difficult time for Rachel Maddow, whose show’s average audience of 774,000 was the smallest since its debut in September of 2008,” writes Randy Hall for Newsbusters. “According to Joe Flint of the Los Angeles Times, a large part of the problem is All In With Chris Hayes, which airs before Maddow’s show and has yet to click with viewers.”

As for O’Donnell’s show, The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell, it “had the lowest rating for that important demographic since the fourth quarter of 2006.”

After O’Donnell called Seitz-Wald out for ignoring MSNBC’s coverage of this “non-scandal” scandal, Seitz-Wald made one small update to his column: “MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell is distressed that we did not name him as an exception to the media’s poor coverage of this story,” he writes. Maybe this acknowledgement of O’Donnell’s distress was forced by Joan Walsh, editor at large and former editor in chief of Salon, who is a frequent guest on various MSNBC shows and clearly doesn’t want to jeopardize that.

MSNBC’s ratings might not be tanking as much if they could get basic reporting right. Of course, the network’s problems don’t stop there. Even former MSNBC producer Jeff Cohen recently described the media outlet as “closer to the ‘official network of the Obama White House’ than anything resembling an independent channel.”

Update: Alex Pareene of Salon joined the fray in this cat fight between Alex Seitz-Wald and Lawrence O’Donnell, defending the former as a little guy standing up against the Washington media. The Washington media, of course, includes MSNBC, where O’Donnell resides. “When you rant about the Washington media—which is also a thing I do, sometimes!—you are actually ranting about the programming that is on your channel all day long, until the evening,” critiques Pareene. “We will endeavor to include a ‘here’s what Lawrence O’Donnell thinks about the topic of this story’ disclaimer in all future Salon articles,” he sarcastically remarks.

While our story above shows that Seitz-Wald, and, by extension Salon, are getting the story wrong on the IRS scandal, it is refreshing to see the egotistical O’Donnell taken down a notch. You can read Pareene’s scathing response to O’Donnell’s bloviations here: “Lawrence O’Donnell outraged to read story that isn’t about him.”

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