The Press Lets Darrell Issa Turn IRS Story Into Another Partisan Pursuit

Answering reporters' questions in the White House Rose Garden last month, President Obama vowed to address the just-uncovered IRS controversy, in which the agency inappropriately targeted conservative groups that were applying for tax-exempt status. “We will be putting in new leadership that will be able to make sure that we...hold accountable those who have taken these outrageous actions,” Obama said on May 16.

Obama announced that the acting IRS director was leaving, and pledged to work with Congress and institute new safeguards, in part by implementing some of the recommendations included in the newly released inspector general's report.

“The good news is it's fixable,” Obama said. “And it's in everyone's best interest to work together to fix it.” At the time, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said that the president “set exactly the right tone.”

Less than three weeks later, Issa appeared on CNN and called White House Press Secretary Jay Carney a “paid liar.” He also dangled for journalists some cherry-picked excerpts from Congressional interviews with a handful of IRS workers, stressed he was convinced the IRS targeting had been done “in all likelihood” for political purposes, and assured viewers it was just a matter of time before he uncovered enough evidence to prove his claims. ( “We're getting to proving it,” he said.)

In other words, what started out, briefly, as a bipartisan effort to fix a serious federal government problem, and what started out with Obama admitting that mistakes were made and committing to holding people accountable, quickly degenerated into the latest partisan pursuit inside Washington.

The focus of Issa's hearings is no longer fixing a problem. It's been shifted to affixing political blame. Rather than asking how the IRS mistake can be avoided in the future, the questions now being asked revolve around politics and the process.

And it was Issa's June 2 CNN appearance, where he uncorked wild charges about the IRS story (charges often based on his "gut" instincts), that signaled to the press that Republicans were, without question, treating the IRS story as purely a political and partisan endeavor. And it was Issa's rhetoric that helped mold the larger media narrative surrounding the story: GOP targets the White House in IRS probe. That in turn produces puts Democrats on the defensive, forced to disprove Republican charges, even though the allegations aren't grounded in fact.

Much the same way the press followed Republicans' lead and allowed the terrorist attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi to be turned into an almost an exclusively partisan pursuit, the same pattern has emerged with the IRS story.

Despite the fact the IRS commissioner at the time of the targeting scandal was appointed by President Bush, and despite the fact the inspector's general report stressed there was no proof the White House or the Obama administration or his re-election campaign in any way urged IRS workers to single out conservative applicants, Issa has adopted the Fox News approach to scandal investigating: Announce Democrats are guilty and then set out in search of the evidence.

It's almost the Alex Jones approach to fact-finding. Issa throwing out allegations based on his “gut” leads to headlines like these: 

Politico: “Darrell Issa charges Washington involvement In IRS scandal”

Atlantic Wire: “Issa Says IRS Scrutiny Was Directed By Washington”

Christian Science Monitor: “Smoking gun in IRS Scandal? Rep. Darrell Issa Says He's Close”

Following Issa's cable TV appearance, the New York Times eagerly portrayed Issa's hollow allegations as newsworthy:

Mr. Issa ratcheted up the pressure over the weekend with the selective release of excerpts from continuing committee interviews with I.R.S. employees in Cincinnati involved in the added scrutiny of Tea Party groups and other conservative associations.

It wasn't until the 24th paragraph that the Times conceded none of Issa's claims “constituted evidence of wrongdoing at the White House.”