Let’s open with a quick quiz:
What news organizations first come to mind as the protectors of fundamental freedoms — 1st and 4th Amendment rights like speech, assembly, religion, privacy — against brazen government overreach and abuse of the little guy?
Did you answer The New York Times, The Washington Post, or maybe even an established TV news station?
If so, you’ll have problems with this next question: What 2013 scandal was one of the most egregious cases of governmental trampling of 1st Amendment-protected rights in recent years?
If you only rely on legacy news for your news, you’re not likely to know the answer: The IRS’ obstruction of hundreds of Tea Party applications for nonprofit status — an abuse that first came to light in May 2013 when the then-director of the IRS office in charge of these applications publicly apologized for the practice.
But you aren’t really at fault, not if you’re a legacy news-only reader.
When it came to reporting one of the most horrendous cases of government overreach and abuse in recent years, legacy news organizations looked the other way. Worse, they bought into the government’s excuses for such harassment – hook, line, and sinker.
An Egregious Case of Government Bullying
Here’s the background: In March 2010, as the run-up to that year’s midterm elections, the Obama administration began using the IRS to block Tea Party applications, and others from mostly conservative and religious groups, for tax-exempt nonprofit status by subjecting them to intense scrutiny and compliance demands. For example, the Ohio-based American Patriots for Against Government Excess, already halfway through the application process, was ordered in 2012 to provide all records of its social media activity, its membership and by-laws, and its interactions with politicians, among other things, in 60 days or have its application closed. Likewise, a Honolulu group told Watchdog.org of detailed IRS demands for photos, videos, names of attendees and speakers at public rallies, and copies and recordings of speeches at those events.
In contrast, in February 2010, the Champaign, IL Tea Party’s tax-exempt status request sailed through IRS offices in 90 days without a single question.
Investigators later found an August 2010 memo from Lois Lerner, head of the IRS applications office, instructing staff to target nonprofit requests containing “Tea Party,” “patriot” or “9/12″ — a reference to Glenn Beck’s group — and like phrases.
Lerner, coincidentally, initially blamed the scandal on the independent actions of a few low-level “line people in Cincinnati,” and Obama later insisted liberal groups were targeted, too.
The IRS vs. Tea Party Scorecard: Legacy vs. New Media
Sure, legacy news organizations covered the IRS scandal. But how outraged were these news outlets, really?
Here’s a hint: the Columbia Journalism Review — hardly a Tea Party proponent — lumped legacy coverage into an August 2013 article partly titled, “How the media lost interest in IRS targeting, even as new facts emerged.”
In May 2013, when the scandal broke, two leading legacy papers reacted this way:
- The New York Times published 8 articles, including 5 on Page 1
- The Washington Post published 16 articles, including 8 on Page 1
Legacy coverage then plummeted in June, when the White House categorically denied any connection to the IRS’ singling out of Tea Party applications, and insisted liberal applications also were subject to IRS scrutiny. How badly did legacy coverage decline? The Times has published a total of five articles since May 2013 on the scandal, three of which are commentaries, including guest editorials.
The Big Three news channels haven’t done much better:
- ABC, NBC and CBS news produced 136 broadcasts in the first seven weeks of the scandal, but only 14 more in 10 months that followed, according to NewsBusters.
The real outrage came from across new media — from the online news outlets that recognized the IRS’ manhandling of Tea Party applications as a targeted and eminently dangerous affront to constitutionally protected rights. And they went after the scandal with the saturation coverage that it, and the news reading public, deserved. Consider these numbers, from online-only news groups:
- Townhall.com posted 41 articles in May 2013, and 1,890 articles to date
- Real Clear Politics, 39 articles; 2,910 articles to date
And the list continues. Breitbart.com has posted 1,910 articles to date and the American Thinker, 921. Red State.com didn’t offer an aggregate number of its articles on a search, but has 39 pages to scroll through, and Watchdog.org, the news arm of the Franklin Center, has well over two-dozen pages.
Online, Government Isn’t Being Ignored
Online, reporters didn’t drop the story, as these numbers vividly attest.
These reporters didn’t accept at face value the government’s claims that no one was targeted on the basis of their political or religious beliefs. Rather, they pursued those claims and grilled government officials, to detail facts that proved otherwise. As Vox and RealClearPolitics, among others, noted, a full 83 percent, or 248 of the 298 applications “flagged” between early 2010 and May 2012, were filed by conservative groups — as were 100 percent of those subject to audits — compared with 9% of liberal groups. The IRS crackdown snared a few liberal outfits, sure, but almost by accident, said Reason.com, much “the way tuna nets catch an occasional dolphin.”
Online, investigations are continuing into government harassment and bullying, from wide new media coverage of the ACLJ lawsuit filed on behalf 41 Tea Party and conservative groups from 22 states, to Watchdog.org’s extensive series of questionable “John Doe” investigations by prosecutors into former aides and associates of Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin (see “Wisconsin’s Secret War“).
Online, the abuse that results from the misuse of power is being debated and challenged — because online, new media reporters aren’t “losing interest” in the government’s use of tax power to suppress free speech, political or religious affiliation, and public assembly.
So, before the next quiz, you might want to check for news where it’s most widely and usefully being reported — online.