A Real-Time Example Of How Scandals Are Manufactured

The IRS “scandal” keeps on failing to live up to its initial hype, but certainly not for lack of trying. The fracas that was once billed as the worst DC scandal since Watergate has slowly, steadily deflated despite conservative efforts to blow life into it, and the media have almost completely lost interest in the story. As both Steve Benen and Alex Seitz-Wald observe, this lack of press attention to the IRS scandal's undoing verges on reckless, given the insane amount of coverage and hype it received at the outset.

But how did we even get to the point where the IRS scandal became a “scandal?” Everyone lost their minds and jumped to conclusions based on incomplete information that, in the end, turned out to be wildly off-base. We were repeatedly told there was a “there” there before anyone bothered to check what was there. The latest attempt to keep the IRS scandal alive by National Review and the Wall Street Journal exhibits those same traits: accusing the IRS and the Federal Election Commission of inappropriately colluding against conservative non-profits without actually knowing what happened.

The National Review reported on July 31 that “Embattled Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner and an attorney in the Federal Election Commission's general counsel's office appear to have twice colluded to influence the record before the FEC's vote in the case of a conservative non-profit organization,” according to e-mails leaked to the publication be the House Ways and Means Committee. (At this point we should know better than to implicitly trust selectively leaked “scandal”-related emails from Congressional Republicans, but here we are.)

According to the conservative magazine, in 2009 a FEC official emailed Lerner inquiring after the tax exempt status of a group called American Future Fund, which was under investigation by the commission following a complaint by Minnesota Democrats over the group's alleged political activities. National Review refers to the group's tax status as “confidential taxpayer information” of the sort that the IRS is prohibited from sharing, though it's not immediately clear that this information is indeed “confidential.” The IRS maintains a public list of organizations that have been granted tax exempt status, and tax-exempt groups are required by law to make public their “exemption applications, determination letters, and annual returns.” The IRS issued a statement saying the email exchange indicates “that neither person wanted the IRS to provide the FEC with anything other than publicly available information,” and Lerner's attorney told the Washington Post that “anyone in the world could get that information.”

National Review even quoted the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee's statement saying the “American public is entitled to know whether the IRS is inappropriately sharing their confidential tax information with other agencies.” So they don't know whether this happened; they're investigating to see whether it happened.

Nonetheless, the National Review's reporting is being hyped as a new “expansion” of the IRS scandal, even though no wrongdoing has been affirmatively established. Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel (who, along with her colleague Peggy Noonan, has been working doggedly to breathe life into the ailing IRS story) writes today: “Congressional investigators this week released emails suggesting that staff at the Federal Election Commission have been engaged in their own conservative targeting, with help from the IRS's infamous Lois Lerner. This means more than just an expansion of the probe to the FEC. It's a new link to the Obama team.”

Once again, we don't know anything. We certainly don't know enough to conclude that there exists a “new link” to the White House. Strassel repeats the National Review assertion that “confidential information” was shared, but in the very next sentence she writes: “What the IRS divulged is unclear.” According to Strassel: “Congressional investigators are demanding to see all communications between the IRS and FEC since 2008, and given that Ms. Lerner came out of the FEC's office of the general counsel, that correspondence could prove illuminating.” Indeed it could prove illuminating, because we don't know anything.

So here we have a suggestion of wrongdoing from selectively leaked emails from partisan sources that don't actually establish any malfeasance. And we have conservative writers running with that suggestion and trying to convince anyone who'll listen that there really is a fire beneath all this smoke. This is how the whole IRS scandal got started, and it's how the conservative press will try to keep it alive.