Alex Seitz-Wald at Salon looks at the shameful way the so-called liberal media fell all over themselves — and fell down — in covering the I.R.S. “scandal.”
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. 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. 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. 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; 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.
In short, the entire scandal narrative was a fiction. But it had real consequences, effectively derailing Obama’s agenda not long after a resounding reelection, costing several people their careers, and distracting and misinforming the public. It’s not that nothing went wrong at the IRS, but that the transgression merited nowhere near the media response it earned. But instead of acknowledging its error or correcting the record, the mainstream political press has simply moved on to the next game.
It’s pretty simple to see why this happened; why the press didn’t bother to actually dig out the story behind the story: it’s not about journalism, it’s about fame and accolades, face time and ego. Everyone wants to be the next big name in their field, no matter whether it’s sports, Hollywood, or crop insurance. Human nature is such that we crave attention. Even famous recluses like J.D. Salinger were famous for doing their best for trying to avoid the limelight; that’s how they get their fix.
So when this carefully manipulated story about the I.R.S. looking into groups with politically aware names started popping up, of course they were going to bite on it even though it was clear from the beginning that it applied to groups of all stripes, including left-leaning organizations. (They probably flagged Lesbians for the Metric System… after all, it was invented by the French.) But they ran with it, jumped to all sorts of conclusions, assumed the worst, and let the Republicans gleefully roll around in it, knowing full well that the Republicans, given the chance, would have done the exact same thing if they’d had the chance. (By the way, did anyone remember that the people at the head of the I.R.S. at the time this went down were appointed by the Bush administration?)
Journalism has always had a siren call to celebrity. After all, you’re going to get your name in the paper, people are going to read your words, and if you’re very, very lucky, they might even make a movie about your work. (“Robert Redford is going to play me? Seriously?”) Of course, that comes along only if the people and the story you’re writing cooperate with your plans and turn out to really be as evil and as criminal as you hope they will be so that you’re along for the ride when they hit the front pages and the history books.
But if you’ve invested a lot of time and make-up on Morning Joe to turn the scandal into your ticket to your own show on cable and all you’ve really got is a nothingburger, you’re not going to spend a lot of time wondering what you did wrong. Self-examination is for columnists at The Atlantic. You’ve gotta find the next story, and Leonardo DiCaprio would be perfect to play you in the film version.