How An AP Headline Sparked A New Right-Wing Media IRS Conspiracy

A misleading Associated Press (AP) headline sparked a storm of right-wing media accusations that former IRS official Lois Lerner targeted Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) for audit, though records only show that Lerner asked an expert a legal question about an event invitation sent to Grassley and the subject of her inquiry was unclear.

Right-wing media jumped to parrot a June 25 AP headline that claimed newly released emails show “IRS Official Sought Audit of GOP Senator.” The Drudge Report linked to the AP story with the claim “IRS Lerner Targeted GOP Senator,” the Daily Caller argued that newly discovered emails from Lerner show “the former IRS Exempt Organizations director's attempt to audit GOP Sen. Chuck,” and The Washington Times claimed that Lerner “tried to get her agency to conduct an audit” of Grassley. On the June 26 edition of Fox & Friends, Fox host Steve Doocy said Lerner decided “I've got to target that guy, even though she didn't have any of the facts.”

But as the actual AP article pointed out, the email exchange between Lerner and Giuliano does not support the claims forwarded in its own headline and by right-wing media. Lerner initially asked if an event organizer's offer to pay for Grassley's wife to attend an event warranted examination. Lerner mentioned the possibility that the offer was inappropriate but did not specify whether she was suggesting that Grassley should be examined:

Is this the one where we got the copy to Grassley? Did he get one to me? Looked like they were inappropriately offering to pay for his wife. Perhaps we should refer to Exam?

Giuliano was similarly focused on the event host. He noted that that the invitation from the group was not enough to warrant sending the issue to the IRS Exam Department, because Grassley had not yet accepted the invitation, and said the issue would only warrant further investigation if Grassley later failed to report the offer as income. In her response, Lerner didn't indicate interest in pursuing the issue further. 

MSNBC's Steve Benen summarized the exchange:

Behold, yesterday's blockbuster that set the right's hair on fire. Lerner questioned whether a group had done something wrong, talked to a colleague, and then dropped the whole thing.