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The IRS Scandal and Media Bias

During his appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin offered this observation:

Because when any government agency, particularly one as powerful as the IRS, engages in something that even people sympathetic to the administration looks weird and suspicious, it’s incumbent upon all of the national media to aggressively ask more questions. The Republicans in Congress are asking questions. I think with a different administration, one that was a Republican administration, this story would be a national obsession. And instead, it’s getting coverage here and a few other places. But it deserves a lot more questions.

It certainly does, and Mr. Halperin deserves credit (as does host Joe Scarborough) for saying so.

Here’s a thought experiment. Assume during the George W. Bush administration the IRS had targeted MoveOn.org, Planned Parenthood, the Center for American Progress, and a slew of other liberal groups. Assume, too, that no conservative groups were the subject of harassment and intimidation. And just for the fun of it, assume that press secretary Ari Fleischer had misled the press and the public by saying the scandal was confined to two rogue IRS agents in Cincinnati and that President Bush had declared that there was “not even a smidgen of corruption” that had occurred.

Let’s go a step further. Assume that the IRS Commissioner, in testifying before Congress, admitted that the emails of the person at the heart of the abuse of power scandal were gone, that the backup tapes have been erased and that her hard drive was destroyed. For good measure, assume that the person who was intimately involved in targeting liberal groups took the Fifth Amendment.

Given all this, boys and girls, do you think the elite media–the New York Times, Washington Post, The News Hour, and the news networks for ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN–would pay much attention to it?

Answer: They wouldn’t just cover the story; they would fixate on it. It would be a crazed obsession. Journalists up and down the Acela Corridor would be experiencing dangerously rapid pulse rates. The gleam in their eye and the spring in their step would be impossible to miss. You couldn’t escape the coverage even if you wanted to. The story would sear itself into your imagination.

It’s true enough that one could focus on media bias every day between now and the Second Coming if one were so inclined. But rarely is the bias as transparent, and the double standard as glaring, as it is during the coverage of scandals. That doesn’t mean that here and there elite journalists don’t focus attention on liberal scandals. But for a host of complicated political and cultural reasons, the press as a general matter draws much greater energy and purposefulness from scandals involving Republican presidents than Democratic presidents. Even during the Lewinsky affair and the criminal cover up of it, there’s no way a Republican White House could have gotten away with the brutal tactics used against the independent counsel. Can you imagine if the Nixon White House had treated Archibald Cox like the Clinton White House treated Kenneth Starr? The press simply would not have allowed it. (See correction below.)

It’s too bad that only a few elite journalists like Mr. Halperin will admit the existence of the double standard; and worse still that knowing of it, nothing much will change. This is yet another case of “motivated perception.” The press can see precisely the same scandal and interpret it in completely different ways, depending on whether at the center of the scandal is a liberal or a conservative administration. And here’s the thing: many journalists really and truly believe they are impartial. Which is but only one reason why we live in an era when American’s trust of the media is at an all-time low.

Correction:

Of course Richard Nixon had Cox fired on October 20, 1973, in what became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.” The reference was a sloppy historical oversight on my part, and I apologize for it. (Leon Jaworski was the special prosecutor who replaced Cox; he was never fired.) What makes my error even more inexcusable is that just the other day I began to re-read a fine book, Nixon: An Oral History of His Presidencyand chapter 24, “The Saturday Night Massacre,” focuses exclusively on the Cox firing.

I’d only add that what happened to Cox actually reinforces my broader point, which is that the press made Nixon pay a fearsome price for firing him. Alexander Haig, then Nixon’s chief of staff, described the reaction as a “firestorm.” Robert Bork, then-Solicitor General and the individual who carried out Nixon’s order, said, “I knew that there would be a lot of trouble about the firing but I didn’t anticipate the intensity of it.” And Raymond Price, chief speechwriter for Nixon, said, “it was as if the world were coming to an end.”

This is how NBC’s John Chancellor began his broadcast that night:

Good evening. The country tonight is in the midst of what may be the most serious Constitutional crisis in its history. The President has fired the special Watergate prosecutor, Archibald Cox. Because of the President’s action, the attorney general has resigned. Elliott Richardson has quit, saying he cannot carry out Mr. Nixon’s instructions. Richardson’s deputy, William Ruckelshaus, has been fired.

Ruckelshaus refused, in a moment of Constitutional drama, to obey a presidential order to fire the special Watergate prosecutor. And half an hour after the special Watergate prosecutor had been fired, agents of the FBI, acting at the direction of the White House, sealed off the offices of the special prosecutor, the offices of the attorney general and the offices of the deputy attorney general.

All of this adds up to a totally unprecedented situation, a grave and profound crisis in which the President has set himself against his own attorney general and the Department of Justice. Nothing like this has ever happened before.

The reaction to the firing of Mr. Cox shook the foundation of the Nixon presidency.



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