The 'scandal' of the IRS targeting groups based on politics is a case study in the making of fake news 

When there is so much angst about fake news, often by those most likely to perpetrate it, a not too distant Washington “scandal” should act as a cautionary tale.   

In 2013, Washington was engulfed in a controversy about whether the White House and the Internal Revenue Service were “targeting” conservative groups because of their political beliefs. From the start, the entire investigation into this issue was fraught with wild claims, incredibly misleading rhetoric, and incomplete and inaccurate information – and we strongly said so at the time. But with Republicans continuing their false attacks, most media coverage failed to fully expose the facts.  

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In May 2013, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration issued an audit report finding that the IRS used “inappropriate criteria” to process tax-exemption applications, and it indicated that groups with the name “Tea Party” were placed on lists for further review.  Republicans immediately claimed this was “the targeting of the president’s political enemies,” as then-Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calf.) said.  

Of course, this made for great political theater, but there was just one problem – the Republican claim was completely false.   

The same IRS watch lists included many liberal groups as well, and the Inspector General testified that he found no evidence of political motivation in the reviews. 

We constantly attempted to convey this reality, saying there was gross mismanagement but no political targeting.  We highlighted that the term “progressives” was also on the so-called “Be On the Look Out” or BOLO list and that the original audit was missing important information.  And we released witness transcripts showing there was no political motivation in the reviews and there was no involvement from the White House.     

Ignoring these facts, congressional Republicans doubled-down on their hyperbolic and irresponsible claims, and they spent considerable time and taxpayer money pressing their misguided case. The GOP held 14 congressional hearings, interviewed 60 current or former IRS employees, and required the IRS to provide over 500,000 pages of documents – all costing many millions of dollars. None of this misspent time and money found any evidence of political motivation in the IRS' activities.

Now four years later, the Inspector General has issued another report making clear that other categories on the BOLO list resulted in numerous progressive and liberal organizations being targeted for review, including groups like Emerge, Occupy, and Acorn, and 61 different groups with “progressive” in their name.  This has belatedly created at least some media introspection, with Washington Post columnist Paul Farhi concluding that “Republicans and the media provided an incomplete or even misleading account of what the IRS was up to when it was reviewing political organizations that sought tax-exempt status.” 

Unfortunately, the fake IRS political targeting “scandal” is not an isolated incident.  Over the last several years, congressional Republicans have made highly suspect claims on various issues and then spent millions of taxpayer dollars investigating them to provide a false veneer of credibility.  And now we have President Trump making completely unsubstantiated claims on a near daily basis. 

Now more than ever, we need not only a free and open press, but a media more interested in truth than controversy. This is the best antidote to fake news.   

Sander Levin represents Michigan’s 9th District and was the ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee. Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsTop Oversight Dem pushes back on Uranium One probe Democrats sue agency for documents on Trump hotel Uranium One deal led to some exports to Europe, memos show MORE represents Maryland’s 7th District, and currently is the ranking member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.