Revelations the past few days that the Internal Revenue Service has been giving special attention to conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status have converged with the news that the Justice Department has been seizing phone records of The Associated Press. Reaction from both camps has been outrage seasoned with constitutional fervor.
Not to overstate, but nothing less than free speech is at stake, about which no one should be confused.
Briefly, the IRS singled out specific groups with words such as "tea party," "patriot" or "9/12" in their names for special scrutiny, including asking for donor lists. Needless to say, this would have a chilling effect on donors who prefer anonymity, but it also smacks of intimidation. The implication: Criticize the government and you will pay. Literally. The targeting, moreover, was not a rogue operation by some random field agents in Cincinnati, as originally claimed, but, according to The Washington Post, involved IRS officials in Washington.
"Outrageous" was the term President Obama used Monday during a joint news conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron. Obama promised to get to the bottom of it even though, as president, he can't directly contact the IRS about a tax matter. This is owing to the legacy of Watergate, when then-President Richard Nixon used the IRS to intimidate his perceived enemies. The unavoidable comparison is, well, unavoidable.
Obama can rattle some cages, though, given his administration's almost daily scandal production, he's going to be a busy zookeeper for the foreseeable future. No sooner had the Benghazi hearing concluded than the IRS story broke, followed by reports of the Justice Department probe. The latter's investigation pertained to reporters' phone records over a two-month period affecting four bureaus, including the AP's congressional office, and more than 20 lines potentially used by hundreds of reporters and, significantly, their sources.
Americans accustomed to hating the media a popular pastime of self-proclaimed "new media," often meaning someone with an iPhone and a laptop should stop hitting "snooze" on their wakeup call right about now. When the choice is between distrusting reporters and distrusting the government, there's no contest, especially when the aggrieved are groups of people (tea partyers and self-proclaimed patriots) whose chief organizing principle is distrust of government.
Reporters, though they are merely human with all the attendant imperfections, are fundamentally on the patriot team. They're sort of like cops: You hate them when their blue lights appear in the rear view, but you love them when something goes bump in the night.
Though some journalists and even some institutions can be politically biased, a news organization exists for the purpose of reporting on organized power, especially the government. If tea party people worry that government is bearing down on them through its confiscatory powers via the IRS, then they have double reason for concern when the media are threatened.
Who in the White House or the Congress will be willing to speak off the record if they fear being exposed to or by the Justice Department? This isn't only outrageous; it is dangerous.
The government can legitimately investigate journalists in the interest of national security, as has been claimed here. Officials say that an AP story last May about a failed al-Qaida plot raised flags about potentially dangerous leaks. But there is a serious question whether the AP situation warranted such a massive and covert search.
Out of fairness (or fear of punitive repercussions?), early reaction to these revelations has focused on the incompetence of the Obama administration rather than any sinister intent. Similarly, the administration's incorrect reporting of events in Benghazi are claimed to have been the product of miscommunication and inter-agency turf squabbles rather than a deliberate attempt to mislead the public leading into the presidential election.
Pending a verdict from investigators investigating investigators, it is abundantly clear that something is awry at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, not least of which is an apparent failure to understand the basic principles of American governance. Incompetence may be an explanation, but it is hardly reassuring.