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Lacking Curiosity, Lacking Credibility: The Media’s IRS Scandal Problem

The IRS scandal took a turn for the worse on Friday when officials claimed they’d lost key emails. Here are three ways the media failed to cover the news.

“Not even mass corruption — not even a smidgen of corruption.” — President Barack Obama when asked in February if corruption was to blame for the IRS singling out Tea Party groups seeking tax exemption for extra scrutiny.

“WASHINGTON — The Internal Revenue Service said Friday it has lost a trove of emails to and from a central figure in the agency’s tea party controversy, sparking outrage from congressional investigators who have been probing the agency for more than a year.” — from the Associated Press, June 13.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) announced that the IRS is claiming to have lost years of emails between former IRS official Lois Lerner and outside agencies and groups. Lerner, who resigned under pressure for her role in the IRS targeting scandal, was also the woman who planted a question about the scandal in the audience at an American Bar Association tax meeting in May 2013. She has proclaimed her innocence and also taken the Fifth and been held in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify about the role she played in the scandal.

The IRS is asking people to believe that the emails can’t be retrieved because Lerner’s computer crashed. While the House oversight committee had requested copies of her emails for a year, they were only notified of this claim on Friday. The IRS provided some copies of emails that others in the IRS had been copied on to or from Lerner, but any emails between Lerner and officials at the White House, Treasury Department, Department of Justice, FEC, or Democrat offices, have not been provided.

If only 18 minutes of “crashing” were enough to cause Nixon problems in the debate over the Watergate scandal, who knows what two years’ worth of emails are concealing for this administration.

And yet the media don’t seem terribly interested in finding out more. Here are a few problems with media coverage of this scandal.

Ignoring the news

As of early Monday morning, there is no indication of the latest news on the scandal on the home page of CNN, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and MSNBC, to name the first four sites I checked.

And in the case of the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and MSNBC, there are no news stories about the lost emails anywhere on their site. If you get your news from these media outlets, you literally haven’t heard word one about this latest update. Covering up salacious scandal updates is appropriate behavior for public relations firms or house organs, perhaps, but it’s journalistically indefensible.

And a note about the Washington Post. The paper has no original content about the scandal, instead posting two AP reports online. A friend told me that not only was the update not on the front page of the paper, but she couldn’t find it anywhere in the front section of the paper. The Washington Post, as its name suggests, is based in the nation’s capital, which is also where the IRS and the White House are based. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the paper’s not going to win a Pulitzer for coverage of this scandal. I should mention that The Volokh Conspiracy — housed at the Post — did make note of it:

Here is the commissioner of the IRS, testifying before Congress in March that the e-mails of employees such as Lerner are “stored in servers.”  Here is a PowerLine post arguing that the “computer crash” excuse is “implausible to anyone who understands how email systems work.”  And here is House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) calling for “an immediate investigation and forensic audit by Department of Justice as well as the Inspector General.”

Why, that doesn’t sound newsy at all!

Covering only the politics

The only Politico story about the lost emails has this headline:

IRS, Republicans clash over Lois Lerner emails

There are two issues here. One is that this is perhaps the least important angle about a scandal involving targeting of political enemies. But another is that this is the only Politico story. Consider what becomes big news and what doesn’t and how that happens. To which I’ll note that a search for “Todd Akin” at Politico shows 39 results in the 24 hours after he made his stupid remarks. Finding 39 different angles to discuss a Missouri politician was easy peasy. But what to say about a dog-bites-man story like “Whoopsie, one of the federal government’s most powerful agencies is embroiled in scandals targeting political opponents and just claims it lost two years of all the emails needed to determine how big of a scandal it is. Oh yeah, and they didn’t mention it for a dozen months after promising to provide said documents. Is that a problem?” Great work, team.

The scandal coverage follows the same pattern

As the scandals mount, they all seem to follow something of a pattern.

Reluctant Revelation: First you have the reluctant revelation of the scandal. It’s not that the media go digging for some dirt. Usually something incontrovertible comes up unrelated to media curiosity – like a U.S. Border Patrol agent ends up being killed by a gun the U.S. put into the hands of dangerous Mexican drug cartels or the IRS publicly admits that it had targeted Obama’s political enemies or it turns out that the Justice Department had secretly seized the phone records of more than 100 AP reporters.
Slow Roll: Then the Obama administration does the slow roll. Agencies and officials claim they’re unable to release relevant information to the media or Congressional overseers. FOIAs are thwarted or delayed. The administration might claim executive privilege or, if you can believe it, computer crashes.
Politics: The media then frequently analyze the scandal in terms of politics. Perhaps partly because they’ve been stymied in their attempts to get real details, press reports focus on whether they’re hurting one party or another or whether the general public cares enough about the scandal to matter on voting day.
Old News: Finally the administration dismisses the scandal as old news (e.g. “Dude, this was, like, two years ago.“) and the public, for its part, gets fatigued by the sheer number of scandals and just gets overwhelmed.

This is not the sign of a healthy republic.

In any case, for those looking to learn more about this latest update to the scandal, here’s the Wall Street Journal on the basics, the original AP story, another AP story, Ron Fournier calling for a special prosecutor, Sharyl Atkisson has some good questions for journalists to start asking.

Follow Mollie on Twitter.

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