This week, the news grinders have gushed forth overlapping reports of three separate, alleged scandals:
Internal Revenue Service officials confirmed they had targeted conservative groups to review whether they deserved tax-exempt status; Justice Department officials seized Associated Press journalists’ phone records in a case involving a national security leak; the State Department and CIA battled over talking points about the Benghazi, Libya, terrorist attack that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
No wonder it has gotten hard for Deciders to keep things straight as they make their initial decisions about the import of a story. Some News Deciders, especially, seemed to have a hard time getting their first decision right, namely: Is this story really major, Page 1, prime-time news — or political hype?
Some Republicans have rushed to be helpful — by likening some of this week’s news to the various high crimes and abuses of Richard Nixon’s White House. Most notably, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., claimed the Obama team’s bungling of its Benghazi explanations was “Obama’s Watergate.” That contention is worse than preposterous. It is a deliberate distortion of history.
So, to help all of America’s Deciders take the measure of today’s gush of scandal news, here is a tool that can help us measure the severity of each allegation: It’s a Nixon News-o-Meter.
We can hold this week’s latest controversies against the Nixon News-o-Meter to compare their scandalous properties:
• IRS vs. Tea Party and Conservatives: The Internal Revenue Service admitted a shameful practice — that since 2011 it targeted the Tea Party and other conservative groups for reviews to see if they deserved tax-exempt status as organizations that perform mainly “social welfare” work, not politics. President Barack Obama called the IRS effort “outrageous” this week, said he wouldn’t tolerate it and will act on an inspector general’s report.
Nixon, meanwhile, was known to have used the IRS to target those who were on his now-infamous “enemies list.” Nixon also was known to have used other government agencies to go after businesses and individuals.
Once, at a press conference, Nixon sought to defend tax deductions he’d taken by citing a list of liberal Democrats who had taken the same deduction. His comments sent his press office into a minor panic because, of course, it is illegal for any official to disclose information contained in an individual’s tax returns — and that’s just what Nixon did with the returns of those liberal Democrats.
Interestingly, The New York Times could have used a Nixon News-o-Meter when Obama era’s IRS scandal story broke. While many newspapers played the report for the Page 1 story it deserved to be, America’s greatest newspaper played the story way back on the bottom of page A10 of the New York Times’ Washington edition. We’ll never know whether the Times would have played the story differently if it would have had been Nixon’s IRS targeting tax exemptions of liberal or progressive groups.
• Justice Department vs. AP journalists: Justice officials seized two months of office and individual telephone records of AP journalists in an apparent effort to find out who leaked information to the AP for a report a year ago that the CIA had thwarted a Yemen-based terrorist plot. Nixon famously wiretapped reporters and members of his own staff in another effort to plug leaks. Both constitute infringements of the First Amendment rights under which journalists freely do their jobs in America.
Lost in all the clamor about the week’s three major scandals was a fourth controversy that might have been bigger news if it had not been for the other three. The Department of Health and Human Services first denied, but then confirmed, that Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has solicited private-sector donations to fund a campaign to sell Obama’s new health care program. There’s nothing wrong with supporters of Obama’s health care program organizing a campaign to sell its merits to a doubting public. But there’s no need to have the HHS secretary fronting the effort.
Richard Nixon would have been the first to advise Team Obama: It’s always better to do these things low key.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.