Is There Really a ‘Scandal Trifecta’?

Barack Obama (photo by NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Barack Obama: facing a “scandal trifecta”?

The White House is evidently in a tough spot thanks to what’s being called a “scandal trifecta”: Benghazi, the Justice Department seizing AP phone records, and the IRS targeting Tea Party groups.  Much of the Beltway press corps–which has pushed the Benghazi story for months–is seeing the Obama presidency in a state of near free-fall. 

“A President Tries to Regain His Footing,” reads a headline in the New York Times today– over a story that makes much of the fact that it rained at Obama’s press conference. “If ever a White House news conference fit the metaphorical moment,” explained Mark Landler, “it was Thursday’s rainy-day affair in the Rose Garden.”

But what’s actually happening?

The release of the Benghazi-related emails makes that story seem like even less of a scandal than it did before–and has exposed the fact that some journalists appear to have been taken in by Republican sources. The Justice Department’s investigation of AP, on the other hand, is serious and reflects a disturbing pattern of Obama administration attacks on investigative journalism–but it might be a hard issue to for Republicans to exploit, given party members’ enthusiasm for prosecuting reporters under the Espionage Act.

The IRS story, then, could very well be the main fuel for the White House’s opposition, so it’s worth a look. The optics of the story, as they say, are pretty clear–and damning. As a giant USA Today headline (5/15/13) put it, “IRS Gave a Pass to Liberals.” A Democratic administration targeting conservative groups while favoring political allies–that certainly sounds Nixonian. 

Interestingly,  the Web version of one of the USA Today pieces discussed the IRS  hurdles that the progressive group Roots Action faced. (Disclosure: That group was founded by FAIR founder Jeff Cohen.)  That story would certainly seem to undermines the front-page headline–which might explain why it doesn’t appear in the print version of the paper.

Not a lot is known what was happening at the IRS. But there are some questions and context worth considering. Brad Friedman (BradBlog, 5/16/13) notes that, according to the IRS’s own investigation, the conservative groups that were flagged for additional scrutiny made up about a third of the groups so flagged overall. What were the other groups? We don’t know.

On Democracy Now! (5/16/13), former New York Times reporter David Cay Johnston noted that none of these groups were actually denied tax exempt status; one group lost its tax exemption, but it was a liberal outfit.

And the larger problem with politically oriented tax-exempt groups is a serious issue; there are major conservative and liberal groups that primarily exist to do election-related work–yet operate with tax-exempt status, based on the notion that they don’t actually do much of that sort of thing. As many observers have noted, those groups are not the ones the IRS appears willing to grill over their tax status.

And if dragging out the tax exempt application process is a scandal, Ryan Chittum of CJR  (5/16/13) recalls that many media outlets applying for non-profit status have been stymied– but, as he points out, right-wing video provocateur James O’Keefe “breezed through 501(c)(3) approval.”

But to the D.C. press corps, there’s blood is in the water, and stories can be turned into full-blown scandals way ahead of the facts.

Karen Tumulty (photo from Center for American Progress)

Karen Tumulty (photo: CAP)

Part of that is due to the fact that too many journalists believe their job is to situate themselves between competing claims; if Republicans invest so much time in complaining about Benghazi as a Watergate-level cover up, you report their claims and the White House responses.  That kind of  “centrism” is what produces pieces like Karen Tumulty‘s recent Washington Post piece (5/16/13), “Obama Struggles to Get Beyond a Scandal Trifecta.” The subhead was especially revealing: “President’s Adversaries Say Recent Revelations Point to Larger Truths.” Tumulty writes:

The most corrosive political scandals are the ones that feed a pre­existing story line–which is why the White House could have difficulty putting the current ones behind it any time soon.

In the view of President Obama’s adversaries, recent revelations add evidence to arguments that they have been making about the president all along: that he would do or say whatever it took to get reelected; that his is a philosophy of rampant, invasive big government; that he has not acted within the constraints of the Constitution; that he regards those who oppose him with contempt.

Of course, some of Obama’s adversaries believe all sorts of things. They wonder about his birthplace, or they argue that the expansion of the private health insurance market is some sort of assault on capitalism. They believe he hates Wall Street, success, capitalism and so forth.

So how seriously should one take people who see a scandal around every corner? For so many in the corporate media, their role is to amplify the storyline. As Tumulty writes (emphasis added):

Taken together, and seen through the eyes of critics, the three controversies that confront the White House look like a tea party fever dream.

I’m sure that is the way Obama’s right-wing critics see things. Journalists, though, can choose to see things differently. The fact that they choose to treat this “fever dream” as one side of an essentially two-sided debate is revealing.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.