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IRS scandal story: Hard on White House, hard on media

The White House has had some trouble getting its story straight regarding the events surrounding the IRS scandal. Same thing can be said for the media.

Around 6 p.m. on Monday, the New York Times issued a report saying, in part: “The I.R.S. inspector general informed the White House counsel’s office about the agency’s nearly finished audit along with other reviews nearly a month before its release, the White House said.”

A while later, the New York Times story had changed. Turns out that the Treasury Department’s legal office informed the White House — not the inspector general at the IRS. That change hit the New York Times site at 9:41 p.m., according to the site NewsDiffs, which tracks changes to the stories of various news outlets.

The Post stumbled as well. In an earlier version of this story, The Post reported that Treasury Department officials had discussed with the White House about the bizarre way that the IRS scandal would come to light — namely, with an IRS official planting a question with an attendee at a conference of the American Bar Association. The updated version of the story inserted this line: “Treasury did not tell the White House about the planned disclosure at the ABA conference.”

Now have a look at The Hill’s IRS screw-up:

[White House Press Secretary Jay] Carney said that Mark Childress, the White House deputy chief of staff, twice spoke with Lois Lerner, the IRS official who oversaw the agency’s tax-exempt organization, about the strategy for revealing conservative targeting.

Here’s how that language reads in the current version of The Hill’s story:

Press secretary Jay Carney told reporters that Mark Childress, deputy chief of staff, spoke twice with Treasury Department officials about the IRS’s public relations strategy.

That’s far from a bureaucratic difference. The IRS is supposed to operate free from the influence of political hacks, which is one of the reasons why its targeting of conservative political groups qualified for the “scandal” designation straight out of the womb. To state that a White House staffer was consulting with Lerner, who sat astride the IRS’s actions in this area, is an explosive “revelation.” The touchy question of interference was the first issue that Carney addressed in his Monday briefing:

Number one, as the independent Inspector General testified and as his report says, he found no evidence that anyone outside of the IRS had any involvement in the inappropriate scrutinizing of conservative groups who were applying for tax exempt status.

More errant claims: Politico messed up the IRS-Treasury thing, writing that the White House had consulted with the tax agency about how to roll out the disclosure about the targeting. Another Politico piece mischaracterized a fine point in the scandal chronology. And finally, CNN fell into the IRS-Treasury trap.

Why break down all these tedious mistakes? To rebut Tucker Carlson. In a discussion a while back with Michael Calderone of the Huffington Post, Carlson, the top editor at the Daily Caller, spoke of journalism’s simplicity:

You went to journalism school? Really? What did you do there? I don’t even know what that means. I don’t know what that is. Journalism school? Is there a more straightforward trade than journalism? It’s not a profession. Plumbing is a profession. You can flood somebody’s basement. It’s a complicated business. Journalism? Find out what happened and tell your readers. How hard is that? The inverted pyramid. OK, story structure. I can teach that in an afternoon — and I do. Spell the names right? OK, get a dictionary. It’s just not….

The Erik Wemple Blog has no gripe with Carlson’s attack on journalism school. But the craft isn’t that simple. It’s not too hard to write, “IRS Scandal: Government messed up.” Yet once you get a few levels deeper, into just who knew what, from whom and how—then, things get complicated. There are many agencies, offices and officials involved, and botching the details, as discussed above, means something.

Further, have a look at this excerpt from Carney’s Monday briefing:

But on April 24th, as I said, the White House Counsel, Kathy Ruemmler, was informed that the Inspector General for Tax Administration was completing a report about line IRS employees improperly scrutinizing what are known as 501(c)(4) organizations by using words such as “tea party” and “patriot.” Counsel was further informed that the report had not been finalized and the publication date of the report was uncertain but likely soon.

(I highlighted the bold text to highlight the passive-voice constructions with the potential to trip up even careful reporters.) Carney also explained:

After that initial notification in April, the White House Counsel informed the Chief of Staff and other members of the senior staff. At no time did anyone on the White House staff intervene with the IRS Inspector General audit. There were communications between White House Counsel’s Office and White House Chief of Staff’s Office, with Treasury Office of General Counsel and Treasury’s Chief of Staff Office to understand the anticipated timing of the release of the report and the potential findings by the IG.

Got all that?

The news orgs involved in the IRS-Treasury media bloodbath are showing exemplary corrective hygiene, for the most part.

Politico hung corrections on both of its stories, though this one errs on the cryptic side:

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the Treasury Department’s interaction with White House officials last month. It was a conversation.

The Hill hung a correction on its piece, though it also errs on the cryptic side:

Editor’s note: This story has been changed to correct who Deputy White House Chief of Staff Mark Childress spoke with about the strategy for revealing the IRS’s actions.

CNN, after being contacted by the Erik Wemple Blog, reviewed the story’s evolution and ultimately penned a correction.

Dan Eggen, an editor at The Post, is looking into its story.

The New York Times didn’t issue a correction to its piece nor did it respond to multiple requests for comment.