May 20, 2013

One effect of scandal coverage, as opposed to normal news coverage, is that the press rapidly loses perspective. That works both ways: small, meaningless “revelations” get reported as major developments even if they really have no actual importance; meanwhile, real policy issues are overlooked in order to keep things in the “scandal” frame.

That’s easy to see in the IRS scandal coverage, which seems to have fallen off the rails today. So, stepping back, what seems to matter right now?

The underlying IRS story remains one of management failure, at least, and possibly even worse malfeasance…but management failure within the bureaucracy. That’s still a big story, and more detail may yet clarify whether or not conservative groups were targeted for political reasons by IRS bureaucrats. There’s also still a possibility that further revelations could spread the story. There will be further investigations, and there’s simply no way to know whether they’ll reveal a larger pattern or outside influence — or, perhaps, it could turn out that there’s even less here than it seems at the moment.

There’s also a policy dimension to this, as well, concerning the IRS’s proper role (if any) in campaign finance. Remember: this entire scandal is about how the IRS went about the job it was asked to do of determining which organizations were improperly involved in campaigns and therefore didn’t deserve a particular category of tax status. Most campaign finance experts think it’s a mistake to put the IRS in that role, and would recommend some type of reform to make similar future misbehavior impossible.

Both of those portions of the IRS scandal story are legitimate news stories.

What’s less impressive is today’s media frenzy about exactly when the president and various White House staffers learned of the Inspector General’s report weeks before it was released. The story, today, is that the White House Counsel’s office apparently learned of the IG report several days before (as we were previously told) the Counsel herself heard about it, and that senior White House staff learned of it (we now learn, after earlier omission)  two or three weeks before the president heard about it in “news reports.”

This is typical feeding frenzy coverage: we have “revelations” that serve to keep the story fresh regardless of whether there’s any substantive significance to them. After all, if Obama knew about the imminent report a little earlier, that wouldn’t mean he was interfering with it. The IG report doesn’t even say Obama or anyone in the White House was involved in IRS misbehavior. And there’s no evidence so far that the White House knew about the investigation during the election season. Today’s story constitutes nothing more than chasing a tiny potential misstatement that has no connection to the genuinely problematic aspects of this story.

To be clear: there’s a real story here regarding IRS behavior. This is not, at least from what we know so far, a purely phony “scandal” invented for partisan advantage. And it’s a  story which merits full investigation. But that doesn’t mean that silly “gotcha” reporting of unimportant details is the way for the press to go.

We’ve already seen this kind of nonsense with the Benghazi story — again, an episode in which a real underlying policy disaster was converted into a meaningless gotcha game about editing talking points in which even if the (ever-shifting) suspicions and accusations would have been substantively insignificant even if they were true.

The message to the press: keep perspective.

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