How to portray news that the Internal Revenue Service targeted Tea Party and other right-of-center groups, and then BSed about it as recently as last week? If you're The New York Times, you see it not as an example of government abuse, but rather as a political story about…Republicans. Check out the headline on today's front-pager:
The article has a strong and original potential news hook: A new inspector general audit that the NYT obtained Sunday shows that IRS official Lois Lerner knew of the Tea Party targeting in 2011, contradicting her comments Friday that she only learned about it last week. And yet the paper takes this first-mover advantage and shifts immediately to how "the new information will only add to the criticism" from conservatives desperate for an issue:
Since last year's elections, Republicans in Congress have struggled for traction on their legislative efforts, torn between conservatives who drove the agenda after their 2010 landslide and new voices counseling a shift in course to reflect President Obama's re-election and the loss of Republican seats in the House and the Senate.
But the accusations of I.R.S. abuse are sure to fuel an effort that appears to be uniting dispirited Republicans and their conservative political base: investigating Mr. Obama and his administration. Republicans are pushing a portrayal of an administration overreaching its authority and punishing its enemies. […]
Republicans got little political traction last year when they highlighted the "Fast and Furious" operation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, in which guns that were supposed to be tracked by the agency were instead lost to drug cartels in Mexico.
But the Republican focus on attacks on United States officials in Benghazi, Libya, got new life last week when Gregory Hicks, a State Department critic of the military's response, told a House committee that he had been effectively demoted after lodging his criticism. […]
The I.R.S. disclosures present Republican critics a golden opportunity.
This is a classic demonstration of what Nick Gillespie has called "the politicization of everything." It's the inability to see discrete news events for what they are, rather than what they might mean for the neverending scrum between Teams Red and Blue. We have learned to expect such dreary reductionism from the dwindling bands of committed partisans, but newspapers are supposed to be above all that, bravely rooting through the muck of rhetoric to find truffles of truth.
Instead, what you get so often—from the IRS to Benghazi—is what I like to call "La La La La I Can't Hear You" Journalism. Because Republicans are inherently irritating and unhinged (oh hey look, here's the lead NYT editorial today: "Who Can Take Republicans Seriously?"), because adversarial politics and congressional hearings by definition produce hyperbole as well as information, then stories conservatives care about are assumed to be non-stories until some entity (preferably governmental) produces a preponderance of evidence.
Sometimes journalists slip up and let this decidedly anti-journalistic calculus find its way into print. For instance, here's Alex Koppelman writing about Benghazi in The New Yorker:
For a long time, it seemed like the idea of a coverup was just a Republican obsession. But now there is something to it.
Well, don't tell that to The New York Times editorial board, which headlined its reaction to the dramatic congressional hearings on the subject like this: "The Republicans' Benghazi Obsession." Read this section of the lead paragraph, and ask yourself who's obsessesed with who:
[T]he hearing showed, yet again, that sober fact-finding is not their mission. Common sense and good judgment have long given way to conspiracy-mongering and a relentless effort to discredit President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Journalism defenders like to tell you that they practice the "discipline of verification." But this looks an awful lot more like straight-up defense of Democratic power against the conservative hordes. Or maybe the Times is just discovering that every new revelation of administration misbehavior merely verifies what they've known all along: Republicans are crazy.