The Burying of a Scandal: TV News Hides the Facts on the IRS’s Targeting of Conservatives

Summary: After a partisan report last June absurdly suggested that progressive groups were just as likely to be scrutinized as conservative ones, ABC, CBS and NBC essentially abandoned their coverage of the IRS targeting scandal which broke one year ago this week. After producing 136 stories on their morning and evening news show during the first seven weeks of the scandal, broadcast news coverage dried up, with just 14 more reports over the next 10 months, as the Big Three ignored numerous damning developments in the case.


A year ago, even liberal news outlets acknowledged that IRS targeting of Tea Party groups and other conservative organizations was a major scandal. When the news broke on Friday, May 10, 2013, ABC’s Terry Moran declared it “a truly Nixonian abuse of power by the Obama administration.” “There’s only one spin for the President,” NBC’s Tom Brokaw opined on May 13, “which is come out and say this is outrageous.”

Even MSNBC’s ultra-partisan Hardball host Chris Matthews, on May 22, slammed the singling out of conservative groups as “like profiling....I go to the airport and I’m running TSA — instead of deciding based upon people’s movements around the world that might be suspicious, going to countries that cause us trouble, I just look for everybody that looks Arab and I put them in one line. The American people would say that’s outrageous, and that’s what this is like.”

During the seven weeks after news of the scandal broke (from May 10 through June 28), the ABC, CBS and NBC morning and evening newscasts churned out a respectable 136 stories about the IRS targeting of Tea Party groups. After that, an MRC study shows, broadcast network coverage dried up. From June 29 through April 30 — a span of more than ten months —  those same programs aired just 14 stories that even mentioned the IRS scandal. And, most of those were brief or inconsequential references that shed no light on the activities of either the IRS or the Obama administration.

So why did the coverage of such an important story dissipate so quickly? Even in early June, influential journalists were arguing that the obvious targeting of Obama’s political opponents was not really all that scandalous. Talking about the IRS revelations and other negative headlines on CBS’s Face the Nation on June 2, New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson dismissed the “scandal” terminology: “It’s very easy to lump all of these issues together....But I’m just not sure, you know, they come together and create, you know — quote, unquote — ‘an atmosphere of scandal.’”

Meanwhile, some of the more rabid hosts on MSNBC were smearing those who kept pursuing the story. “The IRS is being used in exactly the same way as they tried to use the President’s birth certificate,” then-daytime anchor Martin Bashir sneered on June 5. “Despite the complete lack of any evidence linking the President to the targeting of Tea Party groups, Republicans are using it as their latest weapon in the war against the black man in the White House.”

■ Wrongly Suggesting Both Sides Were Victimized: But the crucial element in finally suppressing TV coverage of the scandal seemed to be a selective “early report” released in late June by Democrats on the House Ways and Means committee and then-IRS acting commissioner Danny Werfel, chosen by the President to take command of the agency after the scandal broke. This Democratic report ostensibly showed that liberal groups applying for tax-exempt status were also targeted by IRS officials, and the news media leapt to showcase its improbable conclusions.

“Terms including ‘Israel,’ ‘Progressive’ and ‘Occupy’ were used by agency workers to help pick groups for closer examination, according to an internal IRS document obtained by The Associated Press,” was how the AP’s Alan Fram framed his June 24 dispatch.

Fram continued: “Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee released 15 lists of terms that the IRS agency used and has provided to congressional investigators. Some of the lists, which evolved over time, used the terms ‘Progressive’ and ‘Tea Party’ and others including ‘Medical Marijuana,’ ‘Occupied Territory Advocacy,’ ‘Healthcare legislation,’ ‘Newspaper Entities’ and ‘Paying National Debt.’”

The idea that liberal groups had faced the same level of scrutiny should have been met with deep skepticism. When the head of the IRS’s tax-exempt division, Lois Lerner, first divulged the targeting scheme, she said nothing about progressive or liberal groups. Rather, Lerner on May 10 said groups with “names like ‘Tea Party’ or ‘patriots’...[were selected] simply because the application had those names in the title. That was wrong. That was absolutely incorrect.”

And for weeks the networks had been detailing the mistreatment of conservative groups, without any liberal groups coming forward. On the May 10 NBC Nightly News, for example, reporter Tom Costello recounted how “the former President of the Liberty Coalition says his state group was targeted by the IRS, which demanded lists of members, donors, even family members and politicians who have spoken.”

The next day on CBS This Morning, correspondent Kristen Fisher related that “about 75 groups were flagged by the IRS for further review for one reason: Their applications for tax-exempt status contained the words ‘Tea Party’ or ‘patriot.’...Jenny Beth Martin is the founder of one of those groups, the Tea Party Patriots. They applied for tax-exempt status four years ago. And to this day, they’ve received no reply from the IRS.”

Out of 136 network stories, not one included a single complaint from a liberal or left-leaning group claiming it had also been targeted. Yet when Democrats argued in late June that both sides really were targeted, liberal journalists seemed eager to accept it.

“Turns out it wasn’t just Tea Party groups. It was also groups labeled progressive. Which means this whole thing is over now. Right?” MSNBC host Rachel Maddow smirked on the June 24 edition of her eponymous show. The next morning on MSNBC’s The Daily Rundown, the host — and NBC News political director — Chuck Todd seemed to agree: “The IRS ‘scandal’ [makes air quote marks] looks like it’s a bureaucratic scandal, not the political scandal that Republicans were wishing that they had come up with....[House Chairman Darrell Issa] is living the fable of the boy who cried wolf, at this point.”

As for the broadcast networks, only CBS gave much airtime to the Democrats’ report. On the June 24 Evening News, anchor Scott Pelley headlined that “the new head of the IRS acknowledged late today that the targeting of political groups was wider than we were told, and included organizations that were liberal in nature, as well as conservatives.”

The next morning, CBS This Morning co-host Charlie Rose agreed: “The tax agency now says conservatives were not the only ones targeted for special scrutiny. Agents also looked for liberal groups applying for tax-exempt status.”

In its morning and evening broadcasts, CBS gave 5 minutes 48 seconds of coverage to this new report. In contrast, ABC gave it just 19 seconds on Good Morning America (nothing on World News), while NBC ignored it altogether.

■ Acting as If the Scandal Was Over: The report’s importance, however, was not in the spin employed by network correspondents as they discussed it. In fact, CBS’s Nancy Cordes on the Evening News actually devoted a couple of sentences to the idea that this was not the end of the investigation: “It still appears that Tea Party groups were asked far more questions and made to wait much longer than progressive groups. And, Scott, Republicans point out that so far, not a single progressive group has come forward to tell Congress that they’re upset about the way they were treated by the IRS.”

And on June 28, CBS This Morning gave 53 seconds to news that the Treasury Department’s Inspector General had refuted the essence of the Democratic report. Co-host Norah O’Donnell headlined how House Republicans had “lashed out” at Werfel at a committee hearing, accusing him of putting out a “sham report.” None of the other broadcast networks bothered to pick up on this hearing.

But the reality is that after this report, the broadcast networks essentially stopped covering the IRS scandal, as if all reasonable observers now agreed it was over. Even as the investigation uncovered new evidence affirming that conservatives were uniquely targeted, and as evidence mounted that the IRS was stonewalling congressional efforts to uncover the truth, ABC, CBS and NBC maintained an almost-absolute moratorium on news about the scandal.

After June 28, the broadcast network morning and evening news shows mentioned the IRS scandal in a mere 14 stories, only two of which included substantive information about the ongoing investigation. In order to show just how inconsequential some of these “stories” really are, what follows is a complete summary of each of those 14 stories:

➤ On July 24, the same night President Obama was denigrating Washington’s obsession with “phony scandals,” CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley asked Treasury Secretary Jack Lew about revelations that Tea Party applications had been directed to the office of the IRS’s top lawyer, William Wilkins, a presidential appointee.     

“Has any political appointee had oversight of the decisions that were made around the Tea Party applications?” Pelley asked Lew.
The Secretary’s answer was less than categorical: “There has been no evidence of anyone in a political position having been involved in any of those decisions.” That 90-second exchange was the only time the broadcast networks showed any interest in this potential connection to an Obama appointee; ABC and NBC never mentioned this angle of the scandal, and CBS has yet to revisit it.
➤ After a two-month blackout, NBC’s Chuck Todd made an extremely brief reference to the existence of the IRS scandal in an October 30 Nightly News story about President Obama’s political fortunes: “His 52 percent job approval rating in our January poll was near an all-time high for him, but it didn’t take long for things to go south. It began with the IRS and Benghazi investigations on Capital Hill....”
➤ On November 27, ABC’s Good Morning America news reader Josh Elliott briefly noted an administration plan “to limit the political influence of tax-exempt groups.” That proposal, ignored by the other broadcast networks, was seen by many conservatives as institutionalizing the scandalous targeting of political groups.

➤ On December 28, Today correspondent Kristen Welker included a brief reference to the IRS in a year-end review. “A trio of controversies quickly threatened to derail President Obama’s second-term agenda: revelations the IRS was targeting conservative groups, and that the Justice Department was seizing the phone records of journalists. Plus, the ongoing fallout from the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi....”
➤ On January 14, 2014, CBS This Morning co-host Norah O’Donnell read a brief headline on the status of the investigation: “The Wall Street Journal says the FBI is not expected to file criminal charges after the IRS gave extra scrutiny to conservative groups. Investigators did not find proof of political bias when the agency dealt with organizations using names like ‘Tea Party’ or ‘patriots.’”
➤ On their February 3 morning shows, both NBC and CBS ran stories about President Obama’s comments to Fox News during a pre-Super Bowl interview, and each gave a few seconds to his statement about the IRS scandal. As NBC’s Natalie Morales put it on Today, Obama “said the issue of the IRS targeting Tea Party groups has been cleared up by hearings in Congress.” Over on CBS This Morning, reporter Bill Plante said the President “told [Bill] O’Reilly these were all settled issues and he accused Fox News of keeping them alive.” Neither show suggested Obama's claim of “not even a smidgen of corruption” was in any way inaccurate.

➤ Between March 5 and 7, the Big Three ran a total of five stories about the theatrical dust-up between House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa and ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings at a hearing that included Lois Lerner once again refusing to testify. Lerner, however, was barely mentioned as the networks zeroed in on how Issa cut off Cummings’ microphone, with CBS This Morning scolding the “partisan bickering” and NBC’s Today calling it a “shouting match.”
➤ On March 8, CBS This Morning correspondent Mark Albert alluded to the scandal as he summarized speeches by potential 2016 candidates at CPAC: “One-time presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, also slammed the IRS as a criminal enterprise.”
➤ On the April 10 CBS This Morning, correspondent Jan Crawford provided the first substantive broadcast network report on the scandal since the previous July, as she detailed how the House Ways and Means committee “voted along straight party lines to ask the Justice Department to consider criminal charges against [Lois] Lerner,” saying she had “allegedly engaged in willful misconduct and potentially violated multiple federal criminal statutes.” As happened so often during this story, neither ABC nor NBC bothered to note the development.

■ Crucial Developments Ignored. During these last ten months, while the broadcast networks have been acting as if the scandal was over, a multitude of reports have reinforced the fact that the IRS was aggressively targeting conservative groups; that IRS officials lied in their initial public statements about the scandal; and that the Obama administration has been stonewalling the House investigation. Yet none of these facts have made their way onto the broadcast networks:

➤ Repeated complaints about obstruction went unnoticed by the broadcast networks. On August 2, reported that House Oversight chairman Darrell Issa had accused acting IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel of blocking the committee’s investigation: “Issa claimed the IRS has been slow to produce documents, and that the documents it does produce are so thoroughly blacked out, they are useless to investigators.” Network coverage: Zero.

➤ On September 4, CNN’s Drew Griffin reported that documents showed Lerner’s original story blaming low-level employees was a lie. On that night’s Erin Burnett OutFront, Griffin explained: “The IRS at first blamed the whole controversy on a few so-called rogue agents working at the IRS office in Cincinnati. It turns out that just wasn’t true. Those rogue employees back in Cincinnati were getting direction, being told what to do by Lois Lerner and her senior staff here in Washington — a senior staff of executives trying to decide for months in 2011 and 2012 what to do with the Tea Party applications.” The broadcast networks, however, skipped these revelations entirely.

➤ On September 11, the Wall Street Journal exhibited how Lerner’s own e-mails implied a liberal political agenda at work. One example from July 2012: Lerner received an e-mail from an advisor about complaints by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee about the conservative groups Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity. The Journal quoted Lerner’s hopeful reply — “perhaps the FEC will save the day” — then added its own understated analysis: “That response suggests Ms. Lerner’s political leanings.” Network coverage: Zero.

➤ On September 18, a front-page analysis published by USA Today confirmed the targeting of conservatives: “Newly uncovered IRS documents show the agency flagged political groups based on the content of their literature, raising concerns specifically about ‘anti-Obama rhetoric,’ inflammatory language and ‘emotional’ statements made by non-profits seeking tax-exempt status.” Again, none of the broadcast networks mentioned this report.
➤ At the end of March, the New York Times noted that the House committee was still being frustrated by non-cooperation from the IRS. According to that report, “Mr. Issa said that six months ago, the committee subpoenaed all emails sent and received since 2009 by six IRS officials who had knowledge of the agency’s review of Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt status, including Lois Lerner, who was in charge of the division that reviewed applications for tax exemption. Mr. Issa said that the committee had received only a small fraction of those emails and that Mr. [John] Koskinen [the IRS commissioner] could be held in contempt for noncompliance.” Network coverage: Zero.

➤ And, an April 7, 2014 staff report by the House Oversight and Government Reform committee thoroughly demolished what remained of the notion that both sides had been targeted: “For 15 months beginning in February 2010, the IRS systematically identified, separated, and delayed Tea Party applications — and only Tea Party applications. Even after the IRS broadened the screening criteria in the summer of 2011, internal documents confirm that the agency continued to target Tea Party groups.” Network coverage: Zero.

Later this week, the House of Representatives is scheduled to vote whether or not to hold Lois Lerner in contempt for her failure to testify about her role in the matter. That occasion is as good a time as any for the broadcast networks to remedy this egregious bias by omission, and tell viewers about all of the damning developments in the story since the Big Three last provided real coverage of the IRS’s scandalous treatment of conservative groups.

— Rich Noyes is Research Director at the Media Research Center. Follow Rich Noyes on Twitter.