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Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., chair of the Tea Party Caucus, center, speaks during a news conference with Tea Party leaders about the IRS targeting Tea Party groups, Thursday, May 16, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Molly Riley/AP)

Let me be perhaps the first human being in America to declare that the controversy over the IRS’s alleged persecution of conservative groups is, to use a technical term, a steaming pile of cow poop.

As it happens, cow poop is one of our nation’s most precious resources, and in the days and weeks to come you can rest assured that this cow poop will be used to fertilize both the political fortunes of the Republican Party and the precarious balance sheet of our sanctimonious free press.

Yes, Virginia, nothing sells papers like a good old-fashioned fake scandal, and this one — which conveniently affirms the perpetual persecution complex that has become the default setting of the conservative movement — will be flogged to death.

Nothing sells papers like a good old-fashioned fake scandal…

But let’s look at the actual events and the larger context in which they occurred, by which I mean “the facts,” those stupid things Ronald Reagan was always complaining about.

In 2010, the conservative members of the Supreme Court voted, at the behest of a group called Citizens United, to eliminate many of the campaign finance laws enacted after Watergate.

The one that gets most of the ink involves allowing corporations (who are really just giant people whose consciences happen to function like cash registers) to make unlimited and anonymous political contributions.

But Citizens United also decreed that organizations devoted to issues of “social welfare” could apply for tax-exempt status as 501(c)(4)s.

Immediately, thousands of groups sought the exemption. Almost all of them were and are blatantly political operations. This includes the corporate slush funds run by Karl Rove and his Democratic counterparts.

The IRS, meanwhile, is required by Congress to review every application for tax-exempt status, and has been since 1913. That means it’s the job of auditors to determine if a group is primarily engaged in politics or seeks to promote “the common good and social welfare of a community.”

That’s a pretty complicated judgment to make, especially when the number of applications for these so-called 501(c)(4)s has skyrocketed, while the IRS budget has been slashed by 17 percent per capita over the past decade.

Those of you who have worked at a job in which there were sudden increases in the demand for work output, combined with sharp cuts in staffing, may now be a position to guess what happened next.

It’s called triage. IRS auditors, in an effort to flag applications that were primarily political organizations, set aside 300 for a closer look. Of these, a third had “Tea Party” or “Patriot” in their name or explanatory papers.

Now, if anyone wants to argue that “Tea Party” groups are primarily interested in promoting social welfare, versus pursuing a partisan agenda, I would ask that you identify a single democratic candidate or issue supported by such groups.

I’ll wait.

So here’s what we’ve got: a bunch of IRS workers guilty of using a short cut to finish a task Congress charged them with performing.

For all the whining we’ll hear about how Tea Party groups had their rights trampled, not a single one has yet to claim its tax-exempt status was denied. They just had to fill out long questionnaires and wait a long time. Wah wah!

The big cover-up here isn’t being perpetrated by the president, but a Fourth Estate too craven and hysterical even to identify the true moral folly lurking in its own frantic news cycles.

Ironically, the application of at least one progressive group was actually denied, and others had to answer the same questions as Tea Party groups.

But of course, with a few notable exceptions, you won’t hear any of this silly context from your friends in the media. Why undermine such a juicy narrative?

Instead, we’ll get endless investigations and congressional hearings and the paranoid ranting of our professionally aggrieved right-wing media. We’ll hear that Obama is somehow behind all this, despite the fact that the IRS commissioner at the time of the alleged witch-hunt, Doug Shulman, was appointed by President George W. Bush. Pundits will pontificate. GOPers will hyperventilate. A bunch of people will get fired, starting with acting IRS commissioner Steven Miller, Shulman’s successor, who resigned Wednesday, at the request of Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, though he had nothing to do with any of this nonsense.

The larger outrage — that political groups of all persuasions are lying about their ambitions to avoid paying taxes, that corporations have been given license to pollute our political discourse with propaganda — will be lost in a din of grandstanding.

This isn’t Watergate, folks.

The big cover-up here isn’t being perpetrated by the president, but a Fourth Estate too craven and hysterical even to identify the true moral folly lurking in its own frantic news cycles.

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Tags: Barack Obama, Law

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • Frank

    As is any story about our so called governemnt.

  • johnhay

    Our government is there to make things fair, not to let one side’s groups skate through and hold the other side’s up. The President has said he’s outraged and ashamed at what happened on his watch, but you’re saying he’s wrong. He’s not wrong. How involved he was, we don’t yet know, but this was a mean and unfair attempt to change the level playing field. If these groups were shady, they could simply deny the requests. It’s illegal — that means against the law — to ask any applicant for all the personal information such as children’s names. The only way someone could think this isn’t a scandal, and call Obama a fool, is racism and bigotry.

    • dust truck

      …what? I can’t tell if you’re criticizing Obama or defending him.

      • dsda

        That’s because you lack critical thinking skills.

        • dust truck

          “you* lack?” You’re not a very good typist either.

    • Boston Dad

      The playing field is NOT level, thanks to Citizen’s United ! Crowd-sourced $1 donations have to compete against the deep pockets of self-serving corporations, who got their money from us in the first place !

      • mrmarket

        For many years in Massachusetts the only corporations that did of ton of advertising were the Unions, especially the MTA. I do not like Citizens United and would like all corporations, including Unions, not to have this power. But can we do it?

  • john in danvers

    Steve, the effect of this is a validation of the fraud groups tax subsidy, and the attacks are coming from all sides. Why is it potus and the congressional crazies find common cause attacking the IRS? And after they weaken it and bring it under their control, what are they going to do with those gains?

  • Chuck

    But let me just ask one question: Why did not the IRS set aside tax exempt organization applications that had tags for liberal political causes as its primary mission?

    • dust truck

      Because there wasn’t a flood of new applications for Liberal groups during those years. The “lower level workers’ were just being lazy and trying to find a quick way to sort through all the new applications that were coming it. I’d say it was more a case of bureaucratic incompetence rather than any sort of maliciousness.

  • Stephanie Mitchell

    This gave me a lot of pause. Once again I have to question how we as Americans are dragged into scandal after scandal to distract us from very necessary political and governmental needs of change in this country. I would love to see someone challenge this notion and attempt to keep us on course. Yes, we need to keep the course to protect all our hard working Moms, Dads, grandparents, college students, and all citizens who are fighting the good fight every day. Let’s stop distraction!

  • Andrei

    I am really curious what is the ratio of applications coming from conservative groups to those coming from liberal groups. Very likely, huge! Remember, even the great Crossroads GPS (Rove & Co.) fights for Social Welfare!

  • http://www.facebook.com/williampaulrichards William Richards

    If this was George Bush and starting at the time John Kerry was beginning his campaign against him I have no doubt every news source on the planet, very much including the writer of this crap article would be screaming at the top of their lungs for Bush’s impeachment. However since Obama is in office and apparently much of the media is allergic to any press that makes his office look bad, a simple “I’m sorry” from the IRS should cut it and we can all move on with our lives. Move along people, there’s nothing here to see.

    • http://www.facebook.com/tompstewart Tom Stewart

      I think your world view is very much skewed. Remember, 9/11 happened under Bush, the biggest intelligence failure since Pearl Harbor, and he skated. He lied about Iraq and its capabilities, and staked again. There really is not much of a scandal here, and nothing that connects it to Obama. There really IS ‘nothing here to see,’

  • http://www.capecodtoday.com/blogs/index.php?disp=bloggers citizenkane

    As Boston media blogger, Dan Kennedy, sagely observed: “you dip your line where the fish are”.

  • sjw81

    and if George BUsh had been president still, you would write the same article? what does prior Bush appointee have to do with the current acting one that was fired? why dont you think the irs targeting political groups is a bad thing, when that clearly violates our constitution.

    • dasimon

      I think the article is on the money, and I’d have the same position if the parties were reversed.

      The point of mentioning that the “scandal” took place under a Republican appointee is to refute the claim that this was some intentional partisan enemy-bashing.

      And yes, “targeting” groups based on ideology is improper. I don’t think anyone contests that. But in this case the targeting appears to have been an unintentional result of inappropriate shortcuts to deal with a huge influx of applications for tax-exempt status. That doesn’t make it right, but it also doesn’t make it much of a “scandal.”

    • KOVAINANBAN

      Instead of guessing what ifs, go back to Bush era, do some research and post it with real facts. And also don’t use a broad brushes. What exactly happened here that violates constitution?

  • ereo2384@yahoo.com

    Of course the newsmedia/Democratic Party alliance (NDPA) is going to try to sweep under the carpet this controversy. I would not be surprised if the NDPA is successful in burying this story.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tim-Lavalli/1726952297 Tim Lavalli

      and, of course, the republican party will keep the story going whether there is anything there or not. If you change the party of the president, both parties would easily take on the other’s role. Whether there is something there in this story or not, the real issue is the partisan politics that cares more about controversy and obstruction than they do about governing and the citizens they never represent. How can any sane person support either of these worthless, self-involved institutions of stagnation?

    • dasimon

      There’s no “sweeping under the carpet” going on. The facts are that there just aren’t the facts to support allegations of some major “scandal.” Heck, even Bill O’Reilly says there’s nothing there so far. The problem is that the anti-Obama crowd is trying to create some Watergate-level controversy out of what appears at this time to be at most a bureaucratic screw-up. I know that disappoints the right-wingers, but that’s the reality right now.

  • Geoff Dutton

    Steve is right on the money. (The real agenda of most 501(c)(4)s is about money, you know – mostly about protecting corporate profits). The press is doing what it does best – ballyhooing overblown scandals instead of following the money. Unfortunately, those with Obama antipathy will sling mud as long as the press keeps spreading it around. When whatever scandal it is fades, those same forces will complain that truth is being suppressed. As Steve says, the fourth estate is as much to blame for this insanity as are partisan zealots.

  • David F

    Lois Lerner just asserted her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself when asked to testify. Still think that it’s no big deal? Or do you simply not care what the reasons were behind the added scrutiny since it applies to organizations you don’t agree with?

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