Not too long ago there was a massive scandal clogging up the front pages of the papers and the cable news airwaves: The IRS was either denying or delaying tax-exempt status to right-leaning "Tea Party" groups. But now things are starting to look a little different.
There seems to be no denying that an inappropriate political test was being applied; the IRS apparently had a policy that applications with certain keywords would be flagged for additional scrutiny. The tax agency was dealing with a flood of applications from groups applying for 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status; some of these organizations were quite clearly set up to do election-related advocacy, which is what they were not supposed to be doing.
What's new, according to IRS, is that the "tests" were not just applied to conservative groups. The New York Times' Jonathan Weisman, under the headline "Documents Show Liberals in IRS Dragnet" (6/25/13), reports that the IRS was also looking at groups with names that included words like "Progressive" and "Occupy," or that dealt with issues ranging from medical marijuana or "disputed territories in the Middle East." On that last item, the Times notes:
And "occupied territory advocacy" seemed subject to the most scrutiny of all.
"Applications may be inflammatory, advocate a one-sided point of view, and promotional materials may signify propaganda," according to instructions with a lookout list.
In an understatement, the Times notes, "The new IRS documents raise questions about how the controversy has been portrayed."
Yeah, a little bit. When the scandal broke there was a sense that the government was "targeting" its critics by using the tax agency to harass them. There was no evidence that the White House was involved in any way, but that hardly seemed to matter to pundits like Peggy Noonan, who argued in the Wall Street Journal (5/17/13) that the "purpose, obviously, was to overwhelm and intimidate—to kill the opposition, question by question and audit by audit. It is not even remotely possible that all this was an accident, a mistake." She went on Meet the Press (5/19/13) to suggest the White House was involved–Obama "was giving dog whistle sounds to people who could launch this thing."
Bill O'Reilly spun a conspiracy theory out of the number of times the head of the IRS had visited the White House–though if you garble numbers as badly as O'Reilly did (FAIR Blog, 6/6/13), you'd better pay someone else to do your taxes.
The Times isn't the only outlet on the story; the Washington Post reported today on the same IRS revelations, as did USA Today. It's worth pointing out that USA Today had a piece (6/17/13) hinting at this, with one official saying that "Tea Party" was shorthand for any political group.
As I noted when the story broke (FAIR Blog, 5/17/13), there were a few people–Brad Friedman and David Cay Johnston in particular–who were raising some good questions about the scope of the story. But for most of the elite media, the story was part of Obama's "scandal trifecta."
It all seems like a long time ago…