Conservatives Are Right: Media Under-Covered The IRS “Scandal”

Press Stopped Covering IRS As Scandal Dissolved

Conservatives are misusing a deceptive study to claim that the “liberal media” is giving the recent bridge scandal involving New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's administration more coverage than they gave allegations that the Internal Revenue Service inappropriately targeted conservative groups. In their attempt to use the Christie story for political gain, conservatives accidentally point to a real media failure: after heavily covering the initial IRS allegations, the press has largely ignored subsequent revelations undermining the “scandal.”

On January 8, the media reported on documents showing that close Christie aides were involved in the closure of several lanes of the George Washington Bridge in order to create gridlock in Fort Lee, NJ as political retribution. The next day, Christie gave a press conference apologizing and saying he had fired the aides. As the events involved malfeasance by the administration of perhaps the leading contender for the 2016 Republican nomination, they received heavy media coverage.

On January 10, the conservative Media Research Center (MRC) released a report that attacked the media for that coverage by claiming that ABC, CBS, and NBC had given “a staggering 88 minutes to the story” but “over the last six months have allowed a scant two minutes for the latest on Barack Obama's Internal Revenue Service scandal.” The report has been widely cited by conservatives, particularly on Fox News.

On Fox & Friends this morning, co-host Brian Kilmeade asked how the media could “justify wall to wall coverage over a traffic jam in one region of the country when they practically ignored the IRS which affects everybody in the country.” Commentary Editor John Podhoretz explained that it's because the Washington press corps socializes with members of the Obama administration and “don't believe that these people could do something that untoward,” but they don't know and don't like Republicans like Christie.

This is deeply dishonest. As both the MRC study and the Fox segments ignore, the IRS story broke eight months ago, not six months ago. Rather than comparing the network's coverage of the initial revelations in both stories, the MRC study carefully leaves out the initial, heavy coverage of the IRS story.

But the conservative complaint does inadvertently get at a crucial failure of the media. After trumpeting the initial, damning allegations at the heart of the IRS story, journalists have largely ignored the subsequent revelations undermining the notion that it was, as the MRC terms it, “Barack Obama's Internal Revenue Scandal.”

The IRS story was launched on May 10 when Lois Lerner, then the director of the IRS division that determines whether organizations are tax exempt, admitted to and apologized for improper scrutiny of tea party groups and other organizations seeking tax exempt status. Lerner's statement was intended to pre-empt a highly critical inspector general's report that was released soon after. In the days following Lerner's revelation, President Obama called the targeting “outrageous” and “inexcusable” and fired the acting director of the IRS, while Attorney General Eric Holder announced a federal investigation. Meanwhile, Republicans began holding hearings suggesting that the White House had been involved in the targeting. All of these events received heavy coverage in the media.

But less than two months later, new documents and reporting had largely diffused the scandal, as journalist Alex Seitz-Wald detailed:

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.

Those revelations, however, did not receive nearly as much coverage as the initial allegations, as Brendan Nyhan, an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College who studies political scandals, explained in an August 1 piece for the Columbia Journalism Review.

Nyhan examined the coverage of the story in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Politico, finding that while all three had heavily covered the initial allegations in mid-May, “as contradictory facts emerged in June and early July, they had already lost interest, publishing a fraction of the stories that ran during the initial weeks of the scandal.”

Here are a few charts from his piece showing the huge drop-off in coverage:



According to Nyhan, the media's IRS coverage followed a regular pattern -- “there's a surge in initial interest as reporters rush to embrace the scandal narrative, but the press quickly loses interest after the most sensational charges are not substantiated." It's an observation that rings true - to this day, conservatives bring up Whitewater and Vince Foster to attack the Clintons, years after independent counsels diffused those scandals. The public depends on the media to sort out claims of corruption and ethical improprieties, and these failures can only lead to them being misinformed.