IRS Scandal: Not So Black and White?

Some wonder where the outrage was when the NAACP was audited.

U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann and other Tea Party members arrive at news conference about IRS scandal. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann and other Tea Party members arrive at news conference about IRS scandal. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The burgeoning ‘scandal’ over how the IRS chose for review 75 applicants for tax-exempt status puts on full display an unfortunate tendency in journalism — to quote people accurately without explaining the underlying context,” David Cay Johnston wrote Wednesday for Columbia Journalism Review.

“Yes, it is as wrong for IRS employees to select groups to scrutinize based on their names as it is for police to stop and frisk young people based on the color of their skin. Still, the facts here are not so black-and-white as with racial profiling.”

President Obama, saying Wednesday that he was “angry” at IRS officials who inappropriately targeted conservative groups for scrutiny, announced that his administration had sought and accepted Steven Miller’s resignation as interim commissioner of the IRS, Michael O’Brien reported for NBC News.

Meanwhile, “Georgetown University professor and MSNBC contributor Michael Eric Dyson revealed on MSNBC’s Now on Wednesday that he has been the target of political intimidation by the Internal Revenue Service during the administration of President George W. Bush,” Noah Rothman reported for Mediaite. “Dyson claimed that, after criticizing Bush on television for his government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, he was audited for five consecutive years by the IRS. . . .”

Also, Joy-Ann Reid wrote for the Grio: “NAACP members and leaders watching the excitement over the IRS’ alleged targeting of Tea Party groups might be wondering where the outrage was in 2004, when the IRS, then during the George W. Bush administration, not only targeted the NAACP for extra scrutiny, they hit them with the tool that has made Americans fear the revenue agency most: an audit. . . .”

In his Columbia Journalism Review piece, Johnston, president of Investigative Reporters and Editors and a specialist in tax and regulatory law, continued, “There is a scandal in all of this — several, actually, and some are more significant than the one that is getting all the attention. As the story unfolds, here are some important points to keep in mind:

“Missing from much coverage is the relevant recent history — the role of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision and how it prompted a deluge of requests from new organizations seeking tax-exempt status under tax code Section 501(c)(4) as ‘social welfare’ organizations — despite the fact that many of these are blatantly political operations.

“Congress requires [PDF] the IRS to review every application for tax-exempt status to weed out organizations that are partisan, political, or that generate private gain. Congress has imposed this requirement on the IRS, and its predecessor agencies, since 1913.

“When it comes to 501(c)(4) organizations, what the IRS is supposed to do is draw a distinction between groups that are ‘primarily engaged’ in politics and groups that really are primarily engaged in ‘social welfare’ — somehow ‘promoting the common good and social welfare of the community.’ It’s kind of mushy. Brad Plumer has a good explainer about this on The Washington Post’s Wonkblog.

“The first scandal here, meanwhile, is that the social welfare tax exemption is being used by existing 501(c)(4) organizations, including some very large ones, to promote partisan political interests — the very activity Congress has explicitly prohibited for a century. The New York Times, after a weak political piece on Saturday, had a clear and useful explainer about this on Tuesday.

“Also worth pointing out: None of the organizations that the IRS scrutinized as a result of the ill-considered screening-by-name regime was denied tax exempt status.

“The second — and widely ignored — scandal in this unfolding story is that the IRS is drowning. Congress is demanding that the agency do more and more with less and less, as we have reported here and elsewhere . . . . “

Other commentary:

Wayne Bennett, the Field Negro: The big overreach.

Michael Calderone, Huffington Post: Conservative Outlets Reported On IRS Tea Party Targeting In 2012

C-SPAN: NAACP announces findings of IRS investigation into NAACP’s tax-exempt status (2006) (video)

Editorial, Chicago Tribune: Obama and overreach

Andrew Kirell, Mediaite: IRS Scandal Just Tip Of Iceberg: Agency’s Been Politically Targeting For Decades, Under Both Parties 

Sheila Krumholz and Robert Weinberger, New York Times: The Real I.R.S. Scandal

Mark Lacter, LAObserved: Getting the real story on the IRS ‘scandal’ (it’s not what you think)

Mollie Reilly, Huffington Post: Julian Bond, Former NAACP Chair: Tea Party Is ‘Taliban Wing Of American Politics’

Shield Law Talk Revived Amid Uproar Over AP Phone Records

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, said Wednesday he plans to reintroduce the Free Flow of Information Act, the federal shield law bill that twice passed the Congress over the past few years before being stalled in the Senate,” John Eggerton reported Wednesday for Broadcasting & Cable.

“That move was prompted by the Department of Justice’s seizure of AP reporter and editor phone records, according to AP, without informing the news operation.

“At a Justice Department oversight hearing with attorney general Eric Holder, Conyers said he was ‘troubled by the notion that our government would pursue such a broad array of media phone records over such a long period of time.’ . . .”

Media organizations were nearly unanimous in denouncing the Justice Department’s action.

Hugo Balta, National Association of Hispanic Journalists: NAHJ questions the motives by the Justice Department

Dylan Byers and Katie Glueck, Politico: Inside the AP: Fear, determination

David Carr, New York Times: Snooping and the News Media: It’s a 2-Way Street

Committee to Protect Journalists: CPJ alarmed by US seizure of AP phone records

Editorial Board, Washington Post: Damage to press freedom likely outweighs national security gain

Steven M. Ellis, International Press Institute: IPI expresses concern over U.S. government’s seizure of journalists’ records

Paul Farhi, Washington Post: Justice Department subpoena increases tension between White House and news media

Mark Memmott, NPR: Holder Isn’t Sure How Often Reporters’ Records Are Seized

Newspaper Association of America: Newspaper Association of America welcomes reintroduction of Free Flowof Information Act

Radio Television Digital News Association: RTDNA issues statement on seizure of AP phone records

Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press: Media organizations call on Justice Department to mitigate damage from broad subpoena of journalists’ phone records

Betsy Rothstein, FishbowlDC: NPC Calls on Obama to Explain DOJ Mess

Unity: Journalists for Diversity: UNITY Calls for Transparency on Seizure of AP Journalists’ Records

Erik Wemple, Washington Post: AP subpoena: Journo says he lost sources in 2001 case

MacKenzie Weinger, Politico: 52 media groups protest DOJ’s Associated Press action

The M.C. at Al Neuharth Service Is … Al Neuharth

Who better to know how Al Neuharth would want to be remembered — and celebrated — than Al Neuharth?

And so Neuharth, who led the Gannett Co., founded USA Today and became the CEO of both the Freedom Forum and the Newseum, planned his own memorial celebration. The second installment took place Wednesday at the Newseum — “the house that Al built,” in the words of his colleague Charles Overby, who succeeded him as chairman and CEO of the Freedom Forum, for an audience of about 500.

It was dubbed the “Celebration-capade” by Overby and the “Funeral-capade” by another compadre, John Siegenthaler, former editor of the Tennessean in Nashville and USA Today’s first editorial page editor. They were references to the “buscapade,” “jetcapade” and other “-capades” that Neuharth took around the world, filing reports for USA Today readers as he traveled.

The service opened with a high-definition video in which Neuharth recounted some highlights of his life, including a “-capade” interview with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, whom he called “the toughest, meanest and perhaps the smartest foreign leader I’ve known.”

Castro asked Neuharth whether it was true that USA Today had lost money, and if so, where he got the money to pay its bills. When Neuharth replied that it was with the profits from other Gannett properties, Castro proclaimed that they had something else in common: socialism. Neuharth diplomatically exclaimed “touché!” and was rewarded with a lengthy conversation.

Allen H. Neuharth led the newspaper industry in championing diversity and made it possible for Robert C. Maynard to become the first African American publisher of a mainstream newspaper. He died April 19 at his home in Cocoa Beach, Fla., at 89.

His insistence on diversity and his belief in following one’s dreams despite the naysayers were never far from the list of attributes his devotees recalled for the audience.

Madelyn Jennings, retired senior vice president of personnel at the Gannett Co. and co-chair of the Executive Committee of the Freedom Forum, referred to the recent “42” film about Jackie Robinson’s integration of Major League Baseball. “Al was our Branch Rickey, but better looking,” Jennings said, referring to the Brooklyn Dodgers owner who guided Robinson into history.

“Long before Sheryl Sandberg, he was championing women,” said Judy Woodruff of PBS, a Freedom Forum board member who secured Neuharth’s support in creating the International Women’s Media Foundation in 1990. Sandberg is the author of the current best-selling “Lean In,” about women and mentoring. “For you guys, I’m glad there was affirmative action,” Woodruff joked.

Six graduates of the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Scholars program, displaying multiple ethnicities, expressed gratitude for the professional boost Neuharth’s program had given them. “He taught me that words are only as useful as they are easy to understand,” one said.

Neuharth appeared again at the end of the 90-minute service. “I’m still around,” he said from the screen. “Does that make you wonder whether you’ll ever be rid of me?” He imparted more of the lessons life taught him.

They were neatly packaged into a 50-page, pocket-sized book of aphorisms printed on the pumpkin-colored paper used for his infamous notes to staffers. “See the glass half-full, not half empty,” page 41 read. “Honk your own horn,” it said on page 42.

The “celebration-capade” began Tuesday at the Florida Today building in Cocoa Beach, Fla., and continues Friday at his alma mater, the University of South Dakota.

Melanie Eversley and David Colton, USA Today: D.C. mourners remember USA TODAY founder

Florida Today: Al Neuharth bids farewell to the Space Coast during celebration

Peter Hart, Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting: Dead Journalists and the Newseum Scandal