Remember the video of the guy in the "pimp costume" who got advice from ACORN employees on how to run his prostitution ring? Turns out the whole story was just a lie, a doctored-video smear job on an important organization. The guy never wore a "pimp costume" and the real, undoctored videos showed that ACORN employees did nothing wrong. But a lie travels around the world before the corporate media bothers to check the facts. The "news" media blasted the story everywhere, and Congress was so outraged they forced ACORN to close its doors. And here we are again.
The corporate media is blasting out the story that the IRS "targeted conservative groups." Some in the media say there was "IRS harassment of conservative groups." Some of the media are going so far as claiming that conservative groups were "audited."
This story that is being repeated and treated as "true" is just not what happened at all. It is one more right-wing victimization fable, repeated endlessly until the public has no choice except to believe it.
Conservative Groups Were Not "Targeted," "Singled Out" Or Anything Else
You are hearing that conservative groups were "targeted." What you are not hearing is that progressive groups were also "targeted." So were groups that are not progressive or conservative.
All that happened here is that groups applying to the IRS for special tax status were checked to see if they were engaged in political activity. They were checked, not targeted. Only one-third of the groups checked were conservative groups.
Once again: Only one-third of the groups checked were conservative groups.
Conservative groups were not "singled out," were not "targeted" and in the end none were denied special tax status -- even though many obviously should have been.
From last week's House hearings on this:
Rep. Peter Roskam, R-IL: "How come only conservative groups got snagged?"
Outgoing acting IRS commissioner Steve Miller: "They didn't sir. Organizations of all walks and all persuasions were pulled in. That's shown by the fact that only 70 of the 300 organizations were tea party organizations, of the ones that were looked at by TIGTA [Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration]."
Bet you didn't see that blasted all over your TV news that night.
Click here to watch the video clip of this. It's worth it.
And from Bloomberg reporting: IRS Sent Same Letter to Democrats That Fed Tea Party Row, (emphasis added, for emphasis).
One of those groups, Emerge America, saw its tax-exempt status denied, forcing it to disclose its donors and pay some taxes. None of the Republican groups have said their applications were rejected. Progress Texas ... faced the same lines of questioning as the Tea Party groups from the same IRS office that issued letters to the Republican-friendly applicants. A third group, Clean Elections Texas, which supports public funding of campaigns, also received IRS inquiries.
In a statement late yesterday, the tax agency said it had pooled together the politically active nonpartisan applicants -- including a "minority" that were identified because of their names. "It is also important to understand that the group of centralized cases included organizations of all political views," the IRS said in its statement.
Again, for emphasis: "It is also important to understand that the group of centralized cases included organizations of all political views," the IRS said in its statement."
But no matter, its conventional wisdom now that "the IRS targeted conservative groups." And it's very useful to the right if people believe this. But it just is not true. (If you want to see conventional wisdom at work watch this clip from the most recent Saturday Night Live.)
What Did Happen?
Here's the story. After the Citizen's United decision allowed unlimited corporate money into elections there was a flood of applications to get special tax status that allowed an organization to hide its donors from the public, and in some cases even be tax-exempt. But the rules say that political groups can't get this special tax status. The IRS has to check out applications for tax status to see if it is really a political group trying to sneak in to a special tax status.
Because they were flooded and couldn't check out every applying organization, the IRS group looked for things in the applications that "flagged" an organization as possibly a political group. These flagged applications were then passed along to specialists to look deeper and determine if they were legit or not.
So What Was The "Wrongdoing"?
The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) has issued a full report: Inappropriate Criteria Were Used to Identify Tax-Exempt Applications for Review that looked into the accusation that the IRS "targeted" tea-party groups that were applying for special tax status for extra scrutiny. The report is not all that long. You should read it. (Apparently most the people you are hearing from in the media haven't read it.)
According to the report, the swamped IRS group involved in this came up with ways -- "criteria" -- to identify groups that really needed to be checked further because it was possible they might be engaged in the kind of political activity that would exclude them from getting the special tax status. (The rules for what constitutes political activity that would keep a group for getting special tax status are, to say the least, not clear. See the P.S. below.) Some groups were chosen to receive the required scrutiny because they had "political-sounding" names. Some of the "political-sounding names" included the words "tea party." Others included "We the People" and "Take Back the Country." (The inspector general's report does not disclose if or which other "political sounding names" were also used as criteria.)
And the other problem was that the scrutiny these groups received involved some "unnecessary, burdensome questions."
That was the extent of the wrongdoing. At a time when they couldn't give all applying groups the necessary scrutiny they used criteria that included the names of an applying group to decide if it would get the required scrutiny. And they asked "unnecessary, burdensome questions." That's it. That's the whole thing.
Normally all groups applying for special tax status would and should all get looked at to see if they were really political groups. In this case no groups received any extra scrutiny as has been accused, instead many received less than usual. No group was "singled out" or "targeted" for extra scrutiny, instead they were not given the free pass others were getting because of the overload of applicants.
The IG report concluded that it was wrong to use a group's name as a criteria to help determine if an applicant would be checked out at a time when there were so many applications that every group was not being checked out. (However, the IG report did say that most of the groups forwarded with this criteria in fact should have been forwarded.)
Again, that's the wrongdoing that has triggered the absolute frenzy of outrage you are hearing from... everyone. They said it was silly to use a group's name as criteria for deciding if they should be checked out thoroughly at a time when the IRS was too busy to thoroughly check all applications as they usually do. And they said groups filing for a special tax status but suspected of political activity were then asked "unnecessary, burdensome questions."
And again, that's it, That's the whole "scandal." That's the whole "IRS harassing conservative groups." That's the whole "Obama the dictatorial tyrant going after his enemies" hissy-fit. (Pleasee read Digby's The Art of the Hissy-Fit.)
A Few Facts
Fact: The IRS is required to determine whether organizations applying for special tax status are "social welfare" groups or are instead engaged in political activity. Political groups cannot get the special tax status these groups were applying for.
Fact: Only one-third of the groups that were passed to specialists for a closer look were "conservative." Lots of other organizations were also checked, including progressive organizations.
Fact: No groups were audited or harassed or "targeted" or "singled out." This was about applications for special tax status being forwarded to specialists for a closer look to see if they were engaged in political activity that would disqualify them for the special tax status. This closer look is the kind of review all organization should get, but the IRS was swamped because of the flood of groups applying for a status that let them mask their donors, after Citizens United.
Fact: No groups were harmed. There were delays while the groups were checked to see if they should have special tax status. That's it. But the rules are that they are allowed to operate as if they had that status while they waited for official approval.
Fact: The only groups actually denied special tax status were progressive groups, not conservative groups. In 2011, during the period that "conservative groups were targeted," the New York Times carried the story, "3 Groups Denied Break by I.R.S. Are Named." The three groups? Drum roll... "The I.R.S. denied tax exemption to the groups -- Emerge Nevada, Emerge Maine and Emerge Massachusetts -- because, the agency wrote in denial letters, they were set up specifically to cultivate Democratic candidates."
Fact: The IRS commissioner in charge at the IRS at the time this happened was appointed by President George W. Bush.
Fact: According to the inspector general's report (p. 10) in the "majority of cases, we agreed that the applications submitted included indications of significant political campaign intervention."
The stage for this story to take off at this time was set by other "scandals" in the news. The scandal frenzy began when ABC News' Jonathan Karl falsely reported that White House emails had "taken out" "all references to al Queda and all references to CIA warnings before the attack about the terror threat in Benghazi." He said that these emails "show that many of these changes were directed by Hillary Clinton's spokesperson ..."
But a couple of days later CNN broke the news that the emails Karl used for his ABC report were edited by Republicans to make it appear they said these things. Parts of the edited emails Karl used were "inaccurate" and "invented" to make the administration and State Department look bad. (The word "fabricated" comes to mind.)
Next came a story that the Justice Department had looked at records of AP reporters to see who in the administration had leaked a story. The story was that an informer high up in al Queda in Yemen had delivered a new kind of bomb to target airliners, while the government was still analyzing how to detect it and the informer was still in Yemen. The Justice Department looked at call records -- phone numbers only -- to see if they could spot who had called AP. This became a "scandal" with accusations that the government was "wiretapping" reporters and "secretly monitoring" or "listening in" on their calls -- with the "scandal" gaining traction with its conjunction with the "Benghazi scandal" story promoted by ABC.
Driving Right-Wing Themes Out To Wider Audiences
It is worth noting that Jonathan Karl is a graduate of a conservative-movement "media training" program, the Collegiate Network. The significance of this is explained by Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), in A Right-Wing Mole at ABC News: Jonathan Karl and the success of the conservative media movement:
Conservatives don't just complain loudly, endlessly and inaccurately about liberal media bias. They also train right-leaning journalists to make their way into the supposedly hostile terrain of Beltway media. And one of the most famous alums of a conservative media training program is now a major star at a network news outlet: ABC's senior political correspondent Jonathan Karl.
Karl came to mainstream journalism via the Collegiate Network, an organization primarily devoted to promoting and supporting right-leaning newspapers on college campuses -- such as the Rutgers paper launched by the infamous James O'Keefe. The network, founded in 1979, is one of several projects of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which seeks to strengthen conservative ideology on college campuses. William F. Buckley was the ISI's first president, and the current board chair is American Spectator publisher Alfred Regnery. Several leading right-wing pundits came out of Collegiate-affiliated papers, including Ann Coulter, Dinesh D'Souza, Michelle Malkin, Rich Lowry and Laura Ingraham.
ABC's Jonathan Karl is also one of the reporters driving the "IRS scandal" story to a wider audience, with on-air reports like "Document Draft Shows IRS Targeted Conservative Groups," "IRS IG Report: Targeting Conservatives Began In 2010," "IRS Scandal Spreads Wider Than Cincinnati Officers" and more such stories, usually with inflammatory headlines and sensationalist scandal-hyping story lines.
The Daou Triangle
In 2005 Peter Daou wrote a widely-discussed paper describing how the right's media machine works to drive false stories and smears out to wide audiences. In THE TRIANGLE: Limits of Blog Power Daou described how "a triangle of blogs, media, and the political establishment" worked together to "generate the critical mass necessary to alter or create conventional wisdom." "...it's still the Russerts and Broders and Gergens and Finemans, the WSJ, WaPo and NYT editorial pages, the cable nets, Stewart and Letterman and Leno, and senior elected officials, who play a pivotal role in shaping people's political views."
Describing a triangle of "netroots + media + party establishment = CW," (netroots = "the base" and CW means "conventional wisdom"), Daou explained how they work together:
... a well-developed echo chamber and superior top-down discipline, the right has a much easier time forming the triangle. Fox News, talk radio, Drudge, a well-trained and highly visible punditocracy, and a lily-livered press corps takes care of the media side of the triangle. Iron-clad party loyalty -- with rare exceptions -- and a willingness of Republican officials to jump on the Limbaugh-Hannity bandwagon du jour takes care of the party establishment side of the triangle.
The Daou triangle described how Republican politicians work in concert with the echo chamber to turn false stories into "conventional wisdom." One the progressive-aligned side? Not so much. Daou again:
Whereas rightwing bloggers can rely on their leadership and the rightwing noise machine to build the triangle, left-leaning bloggers face the challenge of a mass media consumed by the shop-worn narrative of Bush the popular, plain-spoken leader, and a Democratic Party incapacitated (for the most part) by the focus-grouped fear of turning off "swing voters" by attacking Bush. For the progressive netroots, the past half-decade has been a Sisyphean loop of scandal after scandal melting away as the media and party establishment remain disengaged.
Six years later Doau wrote an update, "How the Democratic establishment shunned the left, spawned the Tea Party and moved America right." From Daou's follow-up piece:
At the root of the problem is this: the GOP benefits from a superior communications mechanism with which to shape and reshape conventional wisdom. Faced with a public that holds opposing views, politicians can either change their positions to match the public's views or change the public's views to match their positions -- Republicans almost always choose the latter, bolstered by a highly sophisticated framing and messaging infrastructure crafted and funded over decades.
... On the other side you have the Democratic establishment, political leaders, pollsters and strategists who, by and large, are poll addicts, chronically incapable of taking principled stands, obsessed with appealing to independent voters, hostile to progressive advocates, often just as captive to moneyed interests as their Republican counterparts. ...
[. . .] So the brashest, loudest, most confident-sounding voices end up filling the knowledge void, voices that sound authoritative and principled. Rush Limbaugh, for instance. Or Sarah Palin. Sean Hannity. Ann Coulter. Bill O'Reilly.
Echoing these blaring 'voices of authority' are Republican politicians and the right's online denizens. Conservative pundits and columnists then lend it all an air of seriousness. And the media, desperately seeking to appear "fair," give an uncritical national platform to those voices. Not to mention Fox News, which pipes a steady stream of propaganda into millions of American homes. The triangle of establishment, media, and Internet comes together on the right and conventional wisdom is created. Pollsters then dutifully register that shift in sentiment and the media regurgitate it. A virtuous loop for the right.
There's simply nothing comparable on the Democratic side.
If anything, in the debt debate, President Obama and leading Democrats were part of the Republican triangle, reinforcing GOP talking points and running roughshod over a country that didn't even agree with the conservative position.
But The President "Admitted It"
Daou's last point is key. While Republican politicians work with the conservative movement's propaganda outlets, often Democratic politicians also echo Republican messages. In the case of the "IRS scandal" the president did just that, saying that what happened was "intolerable" and firing the acting IRS commissioner. This validated and propelled the false message that the IRS had "targeted" conservative outlets for "harassment" instead of refuting the accusations with facts. And this admission served to validate by proxy the other false right-wing scandal accusations about Benghazi and "wiretapping reporters."
This is not the first time the Obama administration was taken in by false stories originating at right-wing propaganda outlets before the real facts were known. Van Jones had to leave the Obama administration after Glenn Beck accused him of being a "communist" and other right-wing sites accused him of being a "9/11 Truther." Shirley Sherrod was fired from the Department of Agriculture after Breitbart (the same person who posted the doctored ACORN videos) posted doctored video that made it appear she had made racist remarks -- even though the full video later showed the opposite to be true.
The great Brad Blog tells these stories, in "IRS 'Scandal' Appears Nearly as Phony as Shirley Sherrod, Van Jones, ACORN 'Scandals'":
... if you listened only to the corporate media, you --- like the Obama Administration --- also probably thought that the phony, trumped-up "scandals" that led to the inappropriate firing of USDA official Shirley Sherrod, the cowardly firing of White House green jobs adviser Van Jones and the outrageous federal defunding of ACORN were also the unhappy result of an endemic culture of corruption by the Obama Administration, the Democratic Party and its insidious political apparatchiks.
Those fake scandals, however, all three of them, were shams. They were eventually identified as such, though only after a great deal of harm to Sherrod, Jones and ACORN had already been done by the Democrats who fell for them and acted out of knee-jerk and cowardly fear to try and contain the perception of "scandal" which was, naturally, helped along by the very loud misreporting of "the nightly news".
A Teachable Moment
This is a teachable moment -- to us -- to recognize how the right's machine operates, to see how the corporate media and Washington Democrats react, and to learn not to get taken in by it. This is what they do. We shouldn't fall for it -- again and again. Remember, it was Washington Democrats who were taken in by right-wing smear operations, responding by defunding ACORN and censuring MoveOn.
These "scandals" are intended to distract us from the important stories that are unfolding around us, and obstruct the Obama administration from being able to accomplish anything more. For example, one unfolding story is how Senate Republicans are obstructing all attempts to get the government functioning and the economy recovering. By obstructing the National Labor Relations Board and Labor Department nominations, they are preventing the government from being able to enforce laws and rules that enable people to organize and bargain for better wages and benefits. By filibustering laws like last year's Bring Jobs Home Act and The American Jobs Act, they are keeping us from growing the economy and rebuilding our infrastructure, and from preventing the offshoring of jobs. By using hostage-taking tactics with the debt ceiling they are forcing cuts in programs that help people and grow the economy.
This is where our attention should be focused.
PS - A Note About The Law vs. The Rules For Groups Applying For Special Tax Status
While researching this post I came across something interesting about the kind of special-tax-status organization that is allowed to do political work while masking its donors. This is called a 501(c)(4) organization, often just called a "C4." According to the IRS:
The statute: IRC 501(c)(4) provides, in part, for the exemption from federal income taxation of civic leagues or organizations not organized for profit but operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare.
The IRS regulation, or "interpretation" of the law: Section 1.501(c)(4)-1(a)(2)(i) of the Income Tax Regulations states that an organization will be considered to be operated exclusively for social welfare purposes if it is primarily engaged in promoting in some way the common good and general welfare of the people of the community, i.e. primarily for the purpose of bringing about civic betterments and social improvements.
Note the shift from "exclusively" to "primarily." These words have VERY different meanings. While the law says these "social welfare" organizations cannot engage in what is called political intervention, the IRS "interprets" this to mean that up to 49 percent of their activity can.
Recently the New York Times explained some of the ambiguity this difference creates, in "Uneven I.R.S. Scrutiny Seen in Political Spending by Big Tax-Exempt Groups":
The tax code states that 501(c)(4)'s must operate "exclusively" to promote social welfare, a category that excludes political spending. Some court decisions have interpreted that language to mean that a minimal amount of political spending would be permissible. But the I.R.S. has for years maintained that groups meet that rule as long as they are not "primarily engaged" in election work, a substantially different threshold.
Nowhere do the rules specify what "primarily engaged" means, though there are indications that the agency has begun to re-examine the question. In March, the I.R.S. began sending out questionnaires to roughly 1,300 tax-exempt organizations, including some 501(c)(4)s, regarding their political lobbying and other activities. The agency has said it is merely seeking a clearer picture of how tax-exempt groups operate to ensure better compliance.
So all of those smear ads you see at election time, and no one knows who is paying for them? THAT is the difference between the law and this "interpretation" of the law. This "interpretation" of a law that requires groups with special tax status to operate "exclusively" for the social welfare is used to mask the corporate and billionaire donors and enable the smear ads that are destroying our civility and democracy.