‘Rachel Maddow Show’ Producer: IRS Scandal ‘Imaginary…Meaningless…a Nothingburger’

There’s a saying that “life isn’t one damn thing after another – it’s the same damn thing over and over again.” That’s essentially what Steve Benen, a producer for MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show,” argued regarding the IRS scandal in a Thursday blog post on the “TRMS” website.

Benen claimed that throughout “the imaginary IRS ‘scandal,’ there’s [been] an interesting pattern of events that serves as a template for every development. It starts with an alarming report, which is followed by scrutiny, which leads to details that make the original report appear meaningless.”

The latest hype, Benen wrote, centered on Lois Lerner’s alleged wish to investigate Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley. In that case, Benen asserted that “the pattern [held] true: a serious allegation, followed by questions, resulting in answers that produce a nothingburger.”

Benen didn't have the same view of scandals during the Bush years. From Benen’s post (emphasis added):

The [IRS] “controversy” began with reports that the [agency] targeted conservative groups, there was a natural reaction: that’s unacceptable. But then the relevant details came out and in reality the tax agency scrutinized liberal, conservative, and non-ideological groups, effectively ending the story. Every allegation, including conspiracy theories about White House involvement, evaporated into nothing.

More recently the “scandal” produced headlines about the IRS destroying important email messages, which again led fair-minded people to a simple conclusion: that’s outrageous. But then the relevant details came out, the allegations fell apart, and it was again time to move on.

Yesterday, however, Republicans made new allegations: the IRS’s Lois Lerner went after Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). Swing by Google News for a remarkable series of headlines that suggest a real scandal: “Lerner Asked IRS to Audit Republican Senator,” “Lerner Set IRS Sights on Sen. Grassley,” “Lois Lerner’s Threats To Investigate Grassley Should Terrify You.”

Once again, this all sounds quite serious, right up until reality comes to light

[Grassley] wasn’t “targeted” at all. Instead, Lerner asked a colleague if it made sense to examine whether an outside group had made Grassley an inappropriate offer. Her colleague dismissed the idea, and that was the end of it.

The reasoning is specious however you interpret her email, though. One could just as easily argue that the existence of an email “targeting a sitting GOP senator” undermines the case for a coverup. Why leave anything incriminating behind? But the right can’t justify its outrage without begging the question. Presumably, if the emails the IRS did hand over included nothing noteworthy, the right would treat it as evidence of a coverup as well.


Behold, yesterday’s blockbuster that set the right’s hair on fire. Lerner questioned whether a group had done something wrong, talked to a colleague, and then dropped the whole thing.

Republicans treated this like a four-alarm fire, and for whatever reason much of the media went along, but the pattern holds true: a serious allegation, followed by questions, resulting in answers that produce a nothingburger…

Before Benen joined Maddow’s program in early 2012, he was the “Political Animal” blogger for the Washington Monthly. His successor at the Monthly, Ed Kilgore, also weighed in Thursday on the IRS uproar in general and Lerner/Grassley in particular (emphasis added):

This has been apparent for a while, but it's clearer every day that the "IRS scandal" has little or nothing to do with the agency's supposed discrimination against conservative groups applying for non-profit status in order to hide their donors, and everything...to do with exploiting generalized fear and rage towards the IRS...

…Just by invoking the specter of an IRS audit, the GOP inquisitors immediately win half their case in the court of public opinion, particularly among their “base” audience, which is not only composed of people paranoid about the federal government, but is also (on average, mind you) wealthy enough to worry regularly about tax audits…

Tom Johnson
Tom Johnson
Tom Johnson is a contributing writer for NewsBusters