Right-wing media “scandals” never end, they just fade away

A new report should end the conservative fixation on the “IRS scandal.” It probably won't.

Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

The “IRS scandal” -- the right-wing delusion that the Internal Revenue Service was disproportionately targeting conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status and slow-walking their approvals -- began as a political hit job by a partisan Republican congressman. It matured into a full-fledged scandal, with President Barack Obama apologizing and the IRS commissioner resigning in disgrace. And it should die after last night, when reports circulated that a federal watchdog had found that progressives groups had also been targeted for scrutiny in the same way over the same period.

It should, but it likely won’t. Bolstered by a closed loop of conservative thought that is fiercely resistant to new facts that overturn existing narratives, right-wing pundits have turned the “IRS scandal” into a catchphrase for the perfidy of the Obama administration. Like the endless efforts to turn the 2012 Benghazi attacks into a scandal, such efforts are not repelled by reams of reporting or fruitless congressional probes. They build their own momentum and coast onward.

In May 2013, the Department of the Treasury's inspector general for tax administration issued a report finding that the IRS had inappropriately provided additional scrutiny to groups with “Tea Party,” “9/12” (a reference to Glenn Beck’s “9/12 Project”), and “Patriots” in their names that were seeking nonprofit status. It’s the IRS’ job to review such groups and determine whether their efforts are too partisan to receive that status. But the implication of the Treasury report, rammed home by the right-wing press, was that the IRS was creating additional hurdles for the president’s political enemies: The scandal was not that conservative groups were receiving scrutiny, but that they were receiving more scrutiny than progressive ones. And with that premise in mind, conservative pundits were off to the races, weaving conspiracy theories that the president directed the government to target his political foes and demanding the appointment of a special prosecutor.

But within weeks, other news accounts provided a fuller picture, pointing to IRS documents that showed that groups with “Progressive” and “Occupy” in their names were also targeted for additional scrutiny. The inspector general’s new findings reportedly further that point, reinforcing that groups affiliated with the now-defunct conservative bugaboo the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), as well as groups with names referencing “Green Energy” and “Medical Marijuana,” were also selected for additional review. The problem that the inspector general had uncovered was thus that groups were being selected for additional scrutiny based on their names rather than actual evidence of improper political activity. But that was a problem in the reviews of both conservative and progressive groups.

Why, then, did the 2013 report mention only additional scrutiny for the conservative groups? That was a feature, not a bug. As the inspector general’s spokesperson revealed in June 2013, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), then the chairman of the House Oversight Committee and a notorious partisan, had called for the review, asking for the inspector general to “narrowly focus on Tea Party organizations.” It was a set-up. And it worked.

Again, all of this was clear by the summer of 2013. But once the right-wing scandal machine swings into gear, it is virtually impossible to bring to a halt. As New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait points out, the scandal “has lived on and on in the conservative mind,” with congressional Republicans and conservative pundits from all wings of the party united in their fervent assurance that tea party groups received disproportionate scrutiny from Obama’s IRS.

On Fox, the IRS “scandal” remains part of the litany of horribles conservative pundits invoke to highlight the evils of the former president, along with Benghazi and Operation Fast and Furious and the rest. Democrats “did use the IRS as a weapon to persecute Republicans in order to win re-election,” Fox News’ Jesse Watters explained in July. Damning if true! But it isn’t. Meanwhile, in the more rarefied air of Special Report, Bret Baier was championing his program’s reporting on how the IRS “did indeed single out conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status for extra scrutiny” as recently as last month.

The inspector general just removed the last shred of doubt that the scandal was a scam. Don’t expect many on the right to notice.