NY Times Public Editor: Soft IRS, Benghazi Coverage Lends Credence to Conservative Criticism

May 14th, 2013 11:03 AM

The New York Times did some damage control for the Obama administration in its lead editorial Tuesday, defending in part, the IRS's politically motivated audits against fledgling Tea Party nonprofits during the last campaign cycle. The paper ridiculously portrayed the White House as just as outraged as conservatives in a headline: "White House Under Fire: It Condemns I.R.S. Audits of Political Groups."

And the paper's own public editor lambasted the paper's soft-soap coverage of the scandal: "Many on the right – as noted last week in my blog posts about Benghazi – do not think they can get a fair shake from The Times. This coverage won’t do anything to dispel that belief."

From Tuesday's editorial:

The Internal Revenue Service was absolutely correct to look into the abuse of the tax code by political organizations masquerading as “social welfare” groups over the last three years. The agency’s mistake -- and it was a serious one -- was focusing on groups with “Tea Party” in their name or those criticizing how the country is run.

The editorial advocated "a neutral test to scrutinize every group seeking a tax exemption for 'social welfare' activity -- Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal." Then Times editors owned up to their embarrassing editorial from March 2012, in which it applauded the IRS for making the same aggressive moves the IRS has now apologized for. Notice how the Times has already exempted President Obama from personal blame, even though the scandal is still emerging.

Last year, we supported the I.R.S. in aggressively asking Tea Party groups seeking this special tax status to prove that they were not political activists. We urged the I.R.S. to be just as tough on groups already claiming 501(c)(4) status -- like Priorities USA, a Democratic group founded by former White House aides, as well as Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS group and Americans Elect, a third-party group -- as on Tea Party chapters seeking tax-exempt status.

Unfortunately, it appears as though the I.R.S. looked only at conservative groups applying for the exemption, an inexcusable mistake given its power over individuals, nonprofits and corporations, and the potential for abuse. It’s important to point out, though, that this is a far cry from President Richard Nixon’s interest in intimidating his political enemies through selective audits of personal tax records. There is no evidence President Obama knew about the audits by the I.R.S. The groups involved were seeking not to pay taxes on large amounts of income by claiming that they promote social welfare. No one has an automatic right to this tax exemption; those seeking one should expect close scrutiny from the government to ensure it is not evading taxes.

The editorial said nothing about the IRS's improper snooping into the identity of donors, Facebook pages, and "the derivation of your organization's name."

The Times editors went on to petulantly term the prospect of Republican-led IRS hearings "the perfect distraction from issues, like the budget, gun control or immigration reform."

The paper's public editor Margaret Sullivan agreed with critics of her paper's overly soft IRS reporting on her blog Monday afternoon. Responding to a reader's criticism about story placement and coverage intensity, Sullivan responded:

I agree that The Times seemed to play down the story originally, placing it inside the paper and emphasizing the second-day angle of the apology rather than the misconduct itself. In Monday’s paper, the headline, as [journalist Jeff] Greenfield noted, emphasized the Republicans seizing on the issue rather than the widening problem. A Wall Street Journal front-page headline, by contrast, read, “Wider Problems Found at IRS.”

Many on the right – as noted last week in my blog posts about Benghazi – do not think they can get a fair shake from The Times. This coverage won’t do anything to dispel that belief.

Reporter Nicholas Confessore on Tuesday also skirted the partisan nature of the IRS's invasive inquiries. Confessore did find inconsistency and unfair sparing of big, lawyered-up groups like those organized by Karl Rove and President Obama, in comparison to the zealous targeting of smaller, newer, and more vulnerable Tea Party groups: "Uneven I.R.S. Scrutiny Seen in Political Spending by Big Tax-Exempt Groups."

Over the last two years, government watchdog groups filed more than a dozen complaints with the Internal Revenue Service seeking inquiries into whether large nonprofit organizations like those founded by the Republican political operative Karl Rove and former Obama administration aides had violated their tax-exempt status by spending tens of millions of dollars on political advertising.

The I.R.S. never responded.

During the same period, the agency singled out dozens of Tea Party-inspired groups that had applied for I.R.S. recognition, officials acknowledged on Friday, subjecting them to rounds of detailed questioning about their political activities. None of those groups were big spenders on political advertising; most were local Tea Party organizations with shoestring budgets.