When reporters and editorial writers live in different worlds: The New York Times confronts the IRS scandal

New York Times reporters did not mince words when they described how the Internal Revenue Service had, during the last two years “singled out dozens of Tea Party-inspired groups that had applied for IRS recognition” as nonprofits and therefore tax-exempt organizations for special scrutiny, including rounds of questioning about their political activities. The federal agency did not apply similar treatment to liberal groups and the big spenders on either side of the political fence.

While President Obama denounced the IRS conduct as “outrageous,” an editorial in the Times May 14 described it as “the stumble by the IRS,” and so arrived at its very own moment of Clintonian linguistics. You remember the testimony about his platonic relationship with Monica Lewinsky when Bill Clinton said the hilarious line: “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

Being an occasional hothead about words and their meanings, I wanted to see if an interpretation of the IRS activities described so thoroughly by reporters could depend on what the meaning of “stumble” turns out to be. No way, not even if you could muster Clinton’s chutzpah to suggest so. After the definitions of stumbling physically (tripping while walking or walking unsteadily) the dictionary (Webster’s Second) defined stumble as “to trip morally, to fall into sin or error” and as something that happened “without design.”

The IRS did not “fall without design” into the “outrageous” errors of its ways. It busted open the door to “error” and marched in – and kept on marching for two years. It meant to make those “errors,” and it didn’t involve only lower-level employees in Cincinnati, but higher-ranking officers in Washington, D.C., and California.

But the Times editorial seems less concerned with that than with the awful expectation that Republicans will “gleefully” use the IRS transgressions as a political tool against Democratic lawmakers and as a distraction from serious “issues” the White House is supposed to tackle. Oh, stuff such as jobs, the budget and immigration reform. Could they sink so low and do what the Democrats did more than 30 years ago and use that stumble-bum burglary at The Watergate as a political tool against the Republicans? Of course not, because as their president keeps saying “That’s not what we

do,” whenever his people get caught doing just that.

But the comparison to Watergate is not fair. Nixon knew (as we found out), and we have no idea if Obama knew, and what he knew, about the three scandals (in addition to the IRS, the Justice Department’s seizing of two months’ worth of AP telephone records, and how his administration handled the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya) now playing out in Washington’s political swamp. The Times might acknowledge that both parties live there and obey the rules of the swamp.

It will turn out, I suspect, as did the cases of the Harvard Law School professors who got caught committing plagiarism. They blamed too little oversight of what their research assistants were doing in articles or books published under the professors’ names. Harvard accepted their “explanations.” In the IRS case, the agency pursued and harassed only the “little” organizations. Then, it seems likely primarily the little guys in the agency will get blamed and demoted – or exiled to a Kansas office.

What we can learn from this story, so far, is that the big guys in charge never get charged. As the giant banks were “too big to fail,” government leaders are too big to be held accountable. And that’s the message, I hope, many Americans will find offensive and demeaning. Obviously, the Times’ editorial page draws quite different conclusions from its own stories. Now, maybe somebody will write about why that is so.

Now that the “outcry” (did you hear it, Joe and Jane in Omaha?) over the IRS scandal has produced the “resignation” of the agency’s acting director, will the outcry continue to demand change that tears down and then rebuilds a political system rooted in money and influence-peddling? Because if not the carousel of faux scandals will continue to shock – yes, shock – the D.C. crowd and demand the usual human sacrifices. They do work, for the moment. But these scandals aren’t scandals at all; they are “business as usual.” And that’s the real scandal.

Salamon taught German literature and culture at several East Coast colleges, served as staff reporter for the St. Louis Business Journal and as senior editor for Defense Systems Review. He has published three academic books and contributed articles to the Washington Post and the American Conservative.

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