What Happens to a Scandal With Boring Details?

The IRS scandal is starting to look like one of those movies with a cool title and a heart-pounding trailer that ends up delivering two hours of excruciating boredom.

The initial headline “IRS Targeted Tea Party Groups” promised conspiracy, duplicity, and suspense. Surely we’d find a bloody trail leading towards the White House. Investigating that trail would lead to a series of exciting confrontations, where ever-higher-level members of the administration would face the choice of flipping on their bosses or falling on their swords. Eventually, the story might culminate in a presidential resignation (like Nixon) or impeachment (like Clinton).

Excitement! Headlines! Ratings!

Instead, the unfolding details sound more like scenes from David Foster Wallace’s novel The Pale King (also set at the IRS) which explores the spiritual dimensions of boredom.

Nobody has found any trail pointing towards the White House. More and more it looks like bureaucrats broke the rules for the same reason bureaucrats usually break rules — to make their tedious jobs easier. Like cops profiling black teens, IRS agents profiled conservative groups because (i) from their (possibly biased) point of view, that’s who they expected to be cheating, and (ii) it was simpler than thinking up legal ways to generate suspects.

If you want to take viewers deeper than that, you’ll need describe how the regulations define and treat 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) organizations differently from 527 organizations. You’ll have to send cameras to the offices of victimized Tea Party groups and re-enact them filling out unnecessary forms. I’m sure people will be glued to their TVs.

Thursday on Lawrence O’Donnell’s The Last WordChris Hayes explained how he looks at this as a TV host:

My feeling is that as it comes out — as the media is forced to cover what is essentially a somewhat boring story of bureaucratic malfeasance or overwhelmedness or bureaucratic incompetencies or just bureaucratic bureaucraticness — it becomes less interesting. I’m genuinely curious the degree to which this can have legs.  … I have hopes that just from a sheer I-have-to-produce-a-television-show-every-day level, is this interesting? Like, it’s not. … I think the actual details of it end up not sustaining the drama. … What was in the headline was dramatic. … The third through 15th paragraphs are not dramatic.

But Nate Silver makes a different prediction. His model recognizes that a scandal “having legs” involves more than just whether the charges are important or true. He judges a scandal’s potential by (i) whether the accusation is easier to describe than the defense; (ii) how well the story fits or contradicts some pre-existing narrative; (iii) whether the opposition can push the scandal without getting tarred by it; and (iv) whether the media has anything shinier to pay attention to.

By that measure, the IRS scandal looks to have a future: Again, it’s got that great initial headline. It fits two standard conservative narratives: that conservatives are persecuted, and that government is out of control. It figures in the duel between liberal and conservative narratives about Obama: Is Obama basically a good guy doing his best in a difficult job, or is he a ruthless Chicago politician? Since Republicans don’t have their own IRS, this can’t backfire on them the way the Clinton adultery scandal did. And finally, 2012 is over and 2016 is a long way off, so political reporters are looking for excitement like bored 8-year-olds at the end of summer vacation.

How can we reconcile these two conflicting predictions? I think they describe two different universes: For the general public, the IRS scandal will strangle on its own tedium, as Hayes predicts. But it will reach its full scandalous potential inside the conservative media bubble, where the exciting details necessary to keep it going will be invented from whole cloth.

The best insight into the conservative media comes from a series of posts by Tod Kelly on the League of Ordinary Gentlemen blog. His theme has been: “America’s conservative media machine is slowly but surely killing America’s conservative party.”

In the late 90s through the early and mid 00s, the GOP found that it could increase both number of voters and voter passion by aligning itself with a media machine that was initially created to build ratings from shock value. … An inherent flaw with this type of model is that while it leads to quick ratings and advertising profits, it can be difficult to sustain. If you spend one week calling the President a liar and an idiot, it’s not going to be long before calling him a lying idiot isn’t really all that shocking. You have to continually push just a little bit more as you go, or risk being irrelevant in the shock-media world.

… Somewhere along the line, however, this model has to break down – partly because you eventually reach a ceiling where the base that believes the ever-increasingly shocking claims is small enough to make the party you’re backing politically irrelevant, and partly because to those that aren’t part of the machine or the base you begin to look increasingly out of touch. Birtherism is a fairly good example of this ceiling being reached, as are the Death Panels and Obama/Hitler youth programs. Unfortunately for the Right, however, once you tie yourself and your success so inexorably to the machine it becomes almost impossible to untangle yourself from it.

Republican politicians initially thought they would define a narrative that their media machine would trumpet to the world. Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and the rest would serve their governing agenda and help them win elections.

Instead, the conservative media defines a narrative that is shaped to build ratings, and Republican politicians have had to get in step, even if it ultimately means marching off a cliff. The result is a party that can’t put together a governing agenda and can’t win national elections.

But the ratings are good — because media companies don’t need a majority, they just need a small core of dedicated viewers and listeners. (Glenn Beck’s subscribers pay $100 per year; a tiny fraction of the voting public can make him very rich.)

Kelly outlined how the primacy of ratings shaped four bogus stories leading up to the 2012 election.

the story that the President order[ed] his own people be abandoned in Benghazi, the story that the president started Operation Fast & Furious to overturn the second amendment, the story that UN forces will soon be entering the United States to collect the guns of private citizens, and the story that once reelected, the President is set to enact some kind of national Sharia law.

Each of these started as real stories about actions taken by the current administration.  As we will see, however, in each case a pattern begins to emerge:

1. The original story, while absolutely showing a potential miscalculation by the White House, isn’t really damning as initially reported (usually by FOX).

2. The story is then taken by bloggers, talk radio show hosts, and FOX “expert” commentators and reworked to better fit the narrative of Obama as evil usurper.  The facts are changed entirely, but no real journalism is used to gather new information; instead, the media machine relies on self-referencing its own continually shifting commentaries on the original story until a very different and far more nefarious sounding story emerges.

3. The huge whirlwind of the media machine is assumed to itself be indicative of “unreported” news, and thus the original reporting source (again, usually FOX) re-reports the story with the new “facts.”  (Reminding one of that moment in the children’s game Telephone when the original child announces what their starting phrase has morphed into).

4. The media machine and its audience point to the mainstream media’s ignoring of the new, factually dubious story as “proof” that the new story is true.

It’s not hard to apply that model to the IRS story. Tedium will not be a problem for Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity any more than it is for Stephen King. Boredom is never a problem if you let the story generate its own facts.

Republican politicians — even if they know better — will feel that they have no choice other than to pander to the invented story, even if it sounds crazy to most voters. They may even find themselves believing it, until confronted with reality, as Mitt Romney was in the presidential debates.

So even if the trail the White House remains totally bloodless and cold, we may well see impeachment hearings. Beating the drum for impeachment is great for ratings, and what Republican politician is in a position to say no?

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  • TRPChicago  On May 27, 2013 at 12:37 pm

    The context of this IRS story has not been reported well anywhere (although The New York Times finally started to scratch the surface on May 27th.) The 501c(3) and (4) process, in my experience with totally nonpolitical community groups, normally takes several months. By reports, the IRS has been deluged by groups explicitly or implicitly involved in the bete noire of tax exempt status – political activities. Political avocacy is a red flag under quite clear IRS regulations, as it should be. There are general principles, mostly unfavorable to combining tax exemption with politics, but few clear, bright rules. It can be no surprise that any 501c applications that touch these live wires get sidetracked for more intense analysis.

    Of course, the same issues apply to groups whatever their political persuasion may be. So far, that seems to be the entire thrust of the “scandal.”

    We have yet to hear enough details of the “targeting” to reach the broad conclusions that even the responsible media are reporting uncritically. Proportionately, how many more “conservative” organizations have sought preferential tax status than liberal groups? In the applications that ostensibly were profiled to receive additional attention, are code words like “patriot” the only alerts or, for example, did descriptions of activities suggest political advocacy? And this may well have been, at lease in part, a ginned up debacle for, as the NYT story pointed out, “Groups Targeted by I.R.S. Tested Rules on Politics.”

    Of course, these are details and they are boring. No advertising-dependent ratings-oriented organization would get into them UNLESS there are some counter-balancing shorthand phrases to put the IRS actions in a reasonable context. Yes, we can blame the media for not covering details well, but it is incumbent on knowledgable experts to put “the details” in a form and style as understandable as the initial allegations.


  • By Staying in Bounds | The Weekly Sift on May 27, 2013 at 1:05 pm

    […] and the scandal hinges on how the regulations define 501(c)(3)s and 501(c)(4)s, you have to wonder: What Happens to a Scandal With Boring Details? Prediction: The mainstream media will lose interest, but the conservative media will invent […]

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