Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Media, the IRS "Scandal", and the Fact-Free Paranoia of our Day

The New York Times has an excellent investigative piece on the IRS/Tea Party Scandal currently making the rounds. Anybody with the slightest interest in this case - regardless of political stripe - should read this piece thoroughly.

The crux of the report, with a pretty thorough review of facts as they are knowable now, suggests two things:

1) The IRS office in question, located in Cincinnati, performed an almost impossible task badly, an occurrence entirely explainable by reference to bureaucratic and organizational incompetence rather than ideologically-motivated malfeasance. Evidence for the former is so overwhelming as to be conclusive. Evidence of the latter is so thin that, to borrow the British phrase, you wouldn't hang a dog with it.

2) It's not entirely clear, other than from one directive among a great many, that conservative groups (Tea Party or otherwise) were treated any worse than others. To know whether they were or not would require a grasp of basic statistics and a willingness to count and compare the appropriate things, which no reporting (including the above-referenced piece) has yet done. As usual, innumeracy continues to bedevil us.

As an administrator who runs an office that is frequently overwhelmed with paperwork, has been chronically understaffed, and is often expected to do too much by people who don't have much understanding of what we do or why, I am sympathetic to the bureaucratic argument here. This is how bureaucratic organizations, especially ones that are both maligned and neglected (as this branch of the IRS has been) work. Prior to this "scandal", anyone with a working knowledge of organizational function could easily have foreseen significant problems. The only difference now is that Congressmen and pundits with political interest have seen an opportunity to use these problems to partisan advantage, resulting in another round of paranoia-tinged, table-thumping Washington Kabuki theater.

What struck me as particularly ironic today is that, while it ran the piece linked above in today's news section (to be fair, headlined on the front page), it was running this piece in last week's Sunday Op-Ed section. Written by Ross Douthat as part of the NYT's effort to prove that it is willing to print both conservative and liberal opinions, the piece is a fact-free paranoid rant, dripping with sarcasm and filled with references that have nothing to do with the IRS or the case at hand. It is an excellent example of the "thoughts" of someone whose mind is already made up, so don't bother with the facts.

In other words, a week before its reporters could put together an in-depth investigative report (because investigative journalism takes time), the NYT was shooting itself in the foot by printing a blowhard who had already decided he knows what the "real truth" is.

Because it was published a week earlier, and because it is shorter and pithier than the rather lengthy investigative article, $50 says that more people will read Douthat's ramblings to the end than will read the news piece.

This pattern is not all that surprising these days. Opinion can be manufactured in seconds, and nobody (especially media organizations) wants to be seen as withholding sober judgement until the facts come in. So with every new event and "scandal", we get treated to a barrage of half-baked blowhard nonsense first and foremost. If we are patient and wait long enough, we might eventually go to enough information to start to understand the truth. But by then, the blowhards who command most of our attention have moved on to the next manufactured crisis.

I have a simple proposal - one which I doubt will gain much traction, but which I will at least try myself. Let's turn off the blowhards. Don't watch cable news (mostly blowhards these days), don't read the op-ed sections of newspapers, don't click the links your friends post on Facebook - regardless of their ideological slant. Opinion has become the junk food of our information stream - terrible for our minds, but addictive to our tastes. Let's cut back on the Doritos and eat more fruits and veggies - things that take time to grow and procure, but which are far, far better for us.


  1. Hmmm. So, does that mean I should stop clicking on the links that you and Saideman post to your blogs on FB?

  2. But, um, Bill, your blog and mine are both chunks of opinion....

  3. To both Steves: and therefore, anybody who reads my stuff for information purposes - to find out what's going on in the world - should probably stop. I'm not an investigative journalist; most of the facts I cite are repeated from somewhere else more easily accessible. I can't speak for anyone else, but I mostly just play with ideas.

    Plus, frankly, not that many people read my stuff anyway ;)