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A Portia Come to Judgment!

Margaret Sullivan, the Public Editor of the New York Times, has a blog post in which she addresses readers' complaints about the Times' coverage of the targeting of conservative groups by the IRS. She writes:

In essence, these readers believed The Times gave too little prominence to the story initially in Saturdays paper and placed emphasis on the wrong aspect of the situation the apology and the politics rather than the problem itself.

Her conclusion:

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 Mondays paper, the headline, as Mr. 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 wont do anything to dispel that belief.

WSJ 1 NYT 0 


Commenting Guidelines

Well, call me a dewey-eyed optimist, but I'm more sympathetic to the Times and the IRS here. I tend to believe the dull explanations for misconduct. Here the dull explanation is that these groups were proliferating in 2011 and the IRS was doing what it's supposed to do--keeping a sharp eye for tax cheats exploiting and piggybacking on a political movement. Naively, the IRS didn't consider the optics of their watchfulness. The Times, rightly I think, moved slowly on the story because, though the rush to presuming malfeasance makes good copy there might not really be a story. The praise gotten by the WSJ here is yet another straw on the camel's back of responsible journalism. Did this have to be Watergate on its first day for us to trust the Times? Sorry, but--O tempora! O mores!

"WSJ 1 NYT 0." Really? I guess the last 120 years were just the preseason.

Father Imbelli,You can criticize bishops, archbishops, cardinals and popes but not the New York Times!

Mr. Gibbons,Have you spotted a trend?Mr. Commonweal,Just this game.

Sen. Marco Rubio released a letter demanding that the Treasury Secretary and the president fire the IRS commissioner immediately. Alas for his latest attempt to look presidential, the IRS doesn't HAVE a commissioner at the moment. The last one, Douglas Shulman by name, resigned in November and has not been replaced. For good measure, Shulman was a George W. Bush appointee.

Sorry about that, Fr. Imbelli. "Mr. Commonweal" was me, as you may have guessed. (I wasn't properly signed in.) So you're scoring this like tennis? Maybe one day the Journal will win a whole match.

If all Government srewups.e.g. fast and furious, Benghazi, IRS, etc are conspiracies orchestrated by Obama, shouldn't he be given credit for having his hand on so many levers at the same time? Should the GOP just surrender to Obama?Machiavelli?

Bob, You have attacked a sacred cow. I wish you luck (but you may want to run for cover).AA

Father Imbelli,Why, yes, I have.

I am a big supporter of the Obama administration and defender of the New York Times, but the IRS is guilty as charged here, and so is the Times. I don't think anyone in the Obama administration ordered the IRS to go after conservative organizations.On other fronts, those of us (myself included) who defended Susan Rice and the administration for what was said in the two weeks or so following the Benghazi attackRice was just reading the CIA talking points!were lied to, and Jay Carney's responses in his last grilling by the press on the subject were laughable. However, conservatives are blowing the whole idea of a "coverup" way out of proportion for their own nefarious purposes.

Right, the "sacred cow." The one Ken Woodward wrote about here. The one criticized here, here, and here. The trend I'm noticing is cute insinuation on the part of people who don't seem very familiar with dotCommonweal.

"Father Imbelli,You can criticize bishops, archbishops, cardinals and popes but not the New York Times!"Robert Imbelli criticizes the NY Times but rarely the others above. But his bias has always been transparent. Nor did he and Gibbons do anything when the Bush IRS was targeting progressive churches.

Those on the right who think they can't get a fair shake from the Times should check out the Times article today on the Archbishop Myers/Father Fugee scandal. Not once, but 3 times the reporter speaks of "unsupervised" contact with minors, as if "unsupervised" contact is all that is prohibited. Essentially the Times adopts Bill Donohue's position on the agreement.See this post from Mollie Wilson O'Reilly on why Donohue is simply wrong: Here is the Times article:

" I dont think anyone in the Obama administration ordered the IRS to go after conservative organizations."If it is possible for low-level IRS functionaries to do the wrong thing in the IRS, perhaps it is also possible for low-level reporters and news editors to get the story wrong without it being a grand conspiracy orchestrated by the paper's senior editors?

"I tend to believe the dull explanations for misconduct. Here the dull explanation is that these groups were proliferating in 2011 and the IRS was doing what its supposed to dokeeping a sharp eye for tax cheats exploiting and piggybacking on a political movement. Naively, the IRS didnt consider the optics of their watchfulness. "Here is Megan McArdle on this line of thought, which she terms, "the emerging case for the defense of the IRS agents":"Its not like the IRS needs a way to flag the new groups that were created in the wake of the Citizens United decision. They have all the information they need to do that without any special filter. They can search for the date of the application. If what youre concerned about is that most of the new groups being created are in fact thinly disguised electioneering vehicles, then what you want to do is take a random sample of the new groups, review them, and see what percentage turn out to be self-dealing or otherwise engaged in inappropriate behavior. Instead, the IRS method for dealing with the volume was to take an unrandom sample. And how did they decide that you deserved extra scrutiny? Because you had tea party or patriot in your name. Since the Tea Party was a brand-new movement in 2010, they couldnt possibly have had any data indicating that such groups were more likely to be doing something improper. So how exactly did they come up with this filter? There is no answer that does not ultimately resolve to political bias."If Tea Party groups really were driving much of the postCitizens United explosion, there was no need to specifically search for the words tea party or patriot, because those words would naturally be overrepresented in a random sample of new applications. The reason you specifically search for those words is that you want to target those groups specifically, and not, say, applications with Progress, Organizing, or Action in them. "

A justifiably cynical interpretation: When The Times has alienated its last middle-of-the-road readers it can charge higher ad rates in exchange for access to a perfectly homogeneous audience. Sulzberger is making a desparate gamble to stave off an ignominious end to his empire by creating a smaller but purer constituency, the shrinking (but perhaps profitable) liberal fundamentalist demographic. To paraphrase their IRS headline, this dispute gives the NYT an issue to seize on.

Jack: maybe the NYT just doesn't care. It's not that they're trying to put a gentle light on the archbishop's decisions. It's just that religion is not important enough to need to be careful to get it right.

@MBI was not saying that dotcommonweal or the magazine itself treats the Times as a a sacred cow. I have been a paying subscriber to the journal since 1993 so I think you can say that I am reasonably familiar with its contents. I was simply teasing a bit that some commenters here seem to rush headlong into defending the paper whenever even the slightest criticism is raised. AA

I take it for granted that any accurate, final description of what happened at IRS will involve frequently-repeated use of the word "dumb." Certainly some people will need to go to the woodshed: there at least has been lying to Congress, and probably other violations or regulation or law. What does make me a little crazy is the fact that the whole description of this as a partisan scandal depends exclusively on one premise so preposterous that no one has said it out loud--nor are they likely to. IRS is a bureaucratic agency that hires and promotes career professionals under a merit system. It is insulated entirely from the political process. The idea that IRS is a liberal enclave persecuting conservative groups is absurd. Statistically it's almost certain that some IRS employees are Tea Party sympathizers, married to them, etc. All this is why I still applaud NYT for its responsible restraint in the face of this interesting story that is not yet for any reason that makes sense a presidential scandal.Maybe there is a partisan bent to IRS that goes as high as the White House. But no facts supporting that are un evidence. I'd so much prefer the press would stop acting like they are.

Matthew (aka "Mr. Commonweal"),Thanks for calling to my attention Peter Steinfels' post of last year. He wrote:"How could the paper similarly break the stifling hold of that political and cultural progressivism? How could it go about enriching itself ideologically and culturally (and culturally, I think, is the stickler) without just recreating Beltway-style standoff or new versions of the culture wars? I hope the new public editor, Margaret Sullivan, gives this some thoughtful attention."I was applauding Ms Sullivan's judgment in this particular case regarding the "Times'" reporting -- even according her Shakespearean praise. She seems not to have made even a cameo appearance in the comments.Stephen Millies,i hope I have not in any way contributed towards making you "a little crazy." However, do I detect some modification in your sentiments from your first comment (@6:32 p.m.) to this last (@7:28 a.m.)? Or is it only wishful thinking on my part :-)

Just a minor note: Portia was a fake judge.

Good morning, Fr. I--I think it goes something like this. In the post-Citizens United environment a new political movement spawning a deluge of tax-exempt applications should rightly be viewed as a potential candy store for hucksters. Vigilance and watchfulness was the right thing to do. There was no left-wing equivalent to the Tea Party deluge. Had there been, it would be much harder to paint this as partisan. Oh well. What we have looks like the right thing done artlessly, stupidly. Bureaucracies behave this way. Locked in their own cultures, they miss things like the political implications of focusing on Tea Party applications. I'm no expert on the Internal Revenue Code, but they may even have overlooked some regulatory bar against politically-imbalanced enforcements. By 2012, perhaps realizing how this looks or that they may have violated the IRC, they indulged the human instinct to cover up. Where there was wrongdoing there should be consequences. But the rush to call this partisan motivation or a presidential scandal just doesn't add up for me.This is all my speculation. We don't know a lot. We'll know more later this week when there are hearings. But for now, my account seems more sober than the press coverage. Human foibles explain almost everything. Here I think the specific foible we call bureaucratic culture is the real culprit. Can't the journalistic community hold off, stop fanning the flames, until we're sure it's not?

I guess I am missing something. I hope it is not simply because when I see the word "targeting" in this context, I think of "paying attention to" not "attempting to murder." The IRS agents in charge of recommending on allowances for tax exemption paid special attention to applications involving "tea party" at the time the tea party groups -- for which reporters still have trouble finding a collective noun because they are so heterogenous -- blossomed like mushrooms after a monsoon.Where the monsoon was generated I will leave to the reader's discernment. Like any other ginned up social phenomenon in this nation of ginned up social phenomena, the tea party whatever spun off official suppliers (i.e. tee shirt and bumper stucker makers), tin cans to be filled that eventually helped pay for Las Vegas vacations for the patriots who put them out, and well-financed, lawyered and directed organizations waiting to help various causes. If the IRS had not tried to sort out the legal from the Las Vegas-bound, it would have been derelict in its duty.The public servants taxed with the wheat-and-chaff decisions found a quick and dirty method of separating what needed attention from the ebb and flow of tax avoidances, and that can be made to look bad. (Especially when we use a NRA verb for a bureaucratic action). But Obama and Rubio and Collins and all the other howlers, wailers and screamers to be in such a state shows how out of touch Washington is. And those who are criticizing the Times for giving the story about what is worth are thinking like Washington, as far as I can see.

And that includes Jon Stewart.

Steve Millies @ 9:59 +1Anthony A, headlong defending? I don't follow. This is a conversation, in which people voiced their differing views. Calmly, I thought. Or is any opposing view ipso facto intemperate?

@Rita. In this thread here, I have not seen any blind defense of the NYT. But to be honest I have seen it in past dotCommonweal discussions. I am by no means a "Times hater" but in fact a subscriber. However, if there are people who will bend over backwards to defend the bishops not matter how wrongheaded they might be on a particular issue, I have also found that to be the case with others in regard to the NYT. That has simply been my experience.

I wish Newsday would cover NYC again; it was the only good newspaper we ever had.

Thanks for clarifying, Anthony!