Thursday, May 16, 2013

Ignore the Twitter News Cycle on Scandals

On Tuesday, they were measuring out the president's tomb. Today, with no big revelations on any of the current scandals (or "scandals" as the case may be), liberals at least, and I get the sense much of the neutral press, is almost ready to announce the whole thing a dud.

They were wrong on Tuesday; they're wrong today. The truth? We mostly don't know what will happen.

Look, the Benghazi thing remains, as far as I'm concerned, just as big a nothing as it's been all along; the talking points, which have been the GOP focus, just don't matter. That said, however, there's nothing that's happened which makes it likely that Republicans are going to give up on Benghazi. And if they keep pushing, they'll eventually have another day somewhere down the road where neutral reporters will get tempted to buy back in on the "where there's smoke" theory.

As far as the IRS mess ..well, it's absolutely possible that we know pretty much everything that will matter. On the other hand -- there's going to be a serious investigation on the IRS, and Congressional hearings. There's no way of knowing, at this point, whether there's anything else to find out or not. The IG report (as one conservative tweeted today; sorry, don't remember who) is not necessarily the final word; it's really not hard to imagine any number of fresh revelations that could emerge which could make the scandal much worse, without resorting to far-fetched scenarios. I'm not predicting it will; just saying that there's absolutely no reason to guess one way or the other what an investigation will show.

The same is basically true about the AP/DoJ story, although there it's less a case of discovering what happened in this particular case and whether it was kosher than of deep press interest in keeping the story alive. Still, a live story means reporters actively digging for something to justify it. They might find stuff!

Again: I'm not predicting very much here, other than that Republicans are almost certainly going to stick with Benghazi and IRS regardless of what they find, and that the press is likely to behave the way they always behave -- which includes love of scandals. But I didn't get around to writing a "calm down, relax, be patient" post about all this back on Monday and Tuesday when the press was freaking out, and that kind of thing is still just as worth saying to the extent that they're now ready to declare the whole thing over.

Real investigations don't conform to twitter news cycles. Or even the old 24-hour news cycles. Just remember, when you're consuming the news, that you're reading a lot of people who have massive incentives and norms that involve rushing to judgement on everything. Be aware of it, and be ready to fight it.

33 comments:

  1. Not to draw a comparison between the "scandals", but the best example to keep in mind really is Watergate. The Nixon Administration argued for two years that there was nothing there, that they could explain it all, that no crimes were committed, that it was the work of a handful of rogue agents. And at varying times politicians and the press believed them. The revelations came at their own pace.

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    1. Big difference from Watergate, though, is that there, right at the outset, you had something really strange and obviously wrong. Breaking into a party chairman's offices and bugging them isn't something that anyone in the government is tasked with doing. By contrast, screening applications for tax-exempt status is part of IRS agents' jobs, issuing subpoenas for phone records is part of Justice Department investigators' jobs, and writing up talking points about attacks on diplomatic stations is part of the jobs of the people who were involved in that. So it's much more plausible that these people were doing what they did (even if in ways we might question) because it's in their job description, not because Obama's ordering it done. The Watergate burglars never had that excuse, and the idea that some ex-CIA guys were spying on Larry O'Brien for the benefit of no one higher up was never going to sound very plausible.

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    2. Yes, it is the IRS's job to enforce the tax code, but not by discriminating against organizations based on their political orientation. Clearly, that's Obama's opinion -- he even fired the head of the IRS.

      Yes, it is the White House's job to explain world events that relate to US interests. But when the explanation is plainly deceptive, I think you can expect that to be a scandal.

      Yes, the DOJ has the power to issue subpoenas. But when they're used to violate Americans' privacy without a warrant, that should bother all of us.

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    3. Couves, we're not discussing whether these things should bother us, but what their half-life as "scandals" is likely to be. The right and the GOP leaped to the conclusion that everything that went wrong in these cases was somehow an immediate emanation of the will and intentions of Barack Obama. Now they're stuck with facts that don't support this, and therefore with what amount to policy questions that they're not going to want to pursue. The solution on the IRS thing is to clarify the rules regarding which groups get tax exemptions, instead of kicking that question to field agents. Do we make all political groups tax-exempt? Do we end the exemption for social-welfare groups so it can't be abused by political groups? Hard questions. The GOP hates actual policymaking and won't want to deal with them. On DOJ subpoenas, the GOP has been to Obama's right and has been pressing for more aggressive prosecution of leakers. Do they really want to stick themselves now with the opposite position? Will they support the proposed Media Shield Law, and if not, what do they propose? And on Benghazi, evidently what you had was interagency jockeying and blame-shifting of a kind that happens under all administrations and is very hard to outlaw. The underlying solution is better security for CIA posts operating under diplomatic cover; maybe the GOP will agree to that, but it costs money, and they're not going to be eager to have their own previous position on this widely discussed. So, scandal-wise, there's not a lot of mileage left in these stories, even if they go on being FOX echo-chamber talking points for the rest of time.

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    4. Jeff - I disagree with you about the IRS mess. Not that it's Obama's doing - no evidence of anything beyond IRS (as of now). But this does appear to be malfeasance, and there's every possibility that further investigation will turn up something more than what we know now, and IMO it's appropriate to do that investigation.

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    5. Jeff, it's not as simple as Obama vs. the GOP. There are liberals who are upset about the IRS scandal (I'm sorry, that's not simple policy confusion, it's the targeting of conservative partisans.) and spying on the press (Which is Obama's fault for giving the security state free reign.).

      I'm glad Obama is supporting the press shield law, but no one forced his DOJ to seize records without a warrant. If he were seriously concerned, he'd fire those responsible and seek to undo all of the security state enhancements that he's helped to accumulate over the years.

      So far, Obama has largely followed Bush's lead on policy, only dressed in different rhetoric. Nonetheless I think I understand the mentality of liberals, who have decided that certain policy priorities (like civil liberties and transparency) are secondary to others (like healthcare)... and in any case, any Republican would be as bad or worse. But it's damaging to the cause of civil liberties when most liberals simply shrug every time the President expands on Bush policies (or worse, defend him). If this is followed-up by eight years of Hillary, what's left of the liberal connection to civil liberties will be only a bunch of jokes at the expense of Glenn Greenwald.

      With these latest scandals, we've finally seen some liberal backlash. That's a VERY encouraging thing -- here's hoping it will continue.

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    6. Guys, maybe I'm still not being clear. I am not talking about the substance of any of these issues, and am certainly not opposed to further investigations, reforms, even prosecutions or whatever as needed. I'd like the IRS and the DOJ to tread very carefully where Americans' rights are concerned. But my comments here have been intended as political analysis of the likely course of these events as "scandals." I thought that's what this thread was about. I don't believe the scandal element is going to pan out. They're either too far removed from Obama himself, or they reflect Obama priorities that I disagree with, and that Couves disagrees with, but that the political class (including, especially, the GOP) doesn't disagree with, and therefore is not going to continue scandal-mongering over.

      Yes, we could discover further scandalous facts that we don't know yet, linking (e.g.) Obama or David Axelrod to the Tea Party targeting or whatever. But as I said here the other day, when the scandal fever was at its height, that's always true; at any moment, there may be nefarious secrets on any number of issues that we will discover tomorrow to our shock and horror. (Iran-Contra broke all at once, as I recall, when a newspaper in Beirut blew the whistle on it.) So I'm making a political prediction that this "scandalabra" of the past week has already passed through one or maybe two of its half-lives, and that in another couple of weeks it will all be nothing but FOX background noise again. This prediction has the virtue of being testable in the short term, so if I'm wrong we'll know real soon.

      (All that said: If there was obvious "malfeasance" at the IRS, why didn't the IG's report say so? And how, Couves, do you distinguish "targeting" of conservative groups from "flagging applications from groups with an obvious political agenda for further review before declaring them nonpolitical tax-exempt organizations"? The latter IS part of the job of the IRS unless and until the law is changed. You fellows are not investigators and have no more facts available to you than I do, and I think you're loading the dice a little with your word choices. Is there anything wrong with waiting until someone who has actually investigated says there was malfeasance or political "targeting"?)

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    7. I'll partly take back one thing in that last reply (note to self: read first, THEN comment). The IG report itself does speak of groups having been "targeted." That word, however, is getting thrown around, here and in news reports, to suggest there was a political MOTIVE, i.e. that somebody at the IRS wanted to punish Tea Party groups or limit their reach. That's what the GOP has charged and is the whole nub of the "scandal." But the IG report is quite to the contrary: it uses "target" synonymously with "identify for review," and it blames insufficient oversight, confusion about the law's requirements, inadequate training, and a failure of IRS staff to take account of "public perceptions." It recommends more training, clarifying the IRS manual, and better coordination between units internally. There is no mention of malfeasance, misfeasance, or any other kind of feasance, no suggestion that the agents' motives were political (as opposed to finding easier ways to handle a large caseload), and no referral to the DOJ for criminal investigation. So if "there appears to be malfeasance," as JB says, then the IRS must have a pretty incompetent inspector general.

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    8. Jeff, your explanation of the IRS thing would make sense if it weren't for the fact that conservative groups were specifically targeted for review. It's hard to explain how that would happen without a political motive.

      It sounds like we might agree on the AP thing. Of course it will eventually disappear from the headlines. But even then, it's already a big enough story that it won't disappear entirely from the public's consciousness.

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    9. Couves, I hate to disappoint you, but they're not going to find a political motive. The innocent, non-political explanation is this: the Tea Party organized in 2009-2010, Citizens United was decided in early 2010, and so in 2010 there was a big wave of groups on the right that were suddenly applying for tax-exempt status. So an overwhelmed IRS staff was looking for shortcuts to sort through them.

      Mark this for later reference when that's how it plays out.

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    10. Jeff, I can see we're not going to agree on the supposed innocence of targeting conservative groups. But I'm not sure the IRS explanation, which you've repeated here, makes sense even on its own terms:

      http://philanthropy.com/article/IRS-Rationale-for-Tea-Party/139277/

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  2. What we have here is an interesting object lesson in how the political and media systems interact. What a few days ago, apparently, was that two of these stories broke, and one had an additional (but now largely discredited) minor new development, all within the same two or three daily news cycles. So suddenly "Obama scandals" was a story. But this was coincidence. There was no reason to think any of these events were related -- the IRS guys in Cincinnati were probably not trying to cover-up Benghazi, for instance -- and no reason to think that further developments would happen in tandem. So what's happening now is what was bound to happen once the element of coincidence was removed. Turns out none of them points to any decisions of Obama's -- except the AP subpoenas, indirectly, but on that one, as Klein says in the linked item, the GOP wants more of what he's accused of doing, not less -- so all the stories are fading the way they would have if they had happened to break at different times. Already National Review's editors are warning Republicans to try to minimize the amount of egg they're going to end up with on their faces.

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    1. Sorry, sentence 2 should say "What happened a few days ago, apparently....."

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    2. The question is: Will the Republicans refrain from attacking Obama for spying on journalists simply because they have done it before, insisted that it be done this time, and want more of it in the future?

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    3. Scott, they'll do their best not to refrain, but they've boxed themselves in -- what's their next play? What do they call for? Do they actually hold hearings where GOP congressmen berate Eric Holder for being too hard on the mainstream media? There's apparently a Media Shield Bill floating around that Democrats support; what happens when they bring it to the Senate floor, let's say, and offer it as a response to this "scandal"? How do Republicans simultaneously attack that and attack the subpoenas? At some point, being completely cynical and inconsistent catches up with you and limits your options.

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  3. Personally, I find the Benghazi story (even if it's not unique) fascinating for the way people rush to judgment and then stick to that judgment regardless of what happens. How do you figure out how much of it is actively seeking partisan advantage and how much is simply premature cognitive closure? How much of it is people, early on, using their own preconceived notions to fill in the inevitable gaps in knowledge and then concluding that they understand the story fully and definitively. Just look at how people decided, probably unconsciously, that the Benghazi story simply could not be about both terrorists AND a poorly made video. It must be one or the other, and any reference to a video was, in and of itself, a denial of what had really happened. Just look at those reporters only a week ago yelling at Jay Carney because they simply knew that if the first draft of the talking points was different from the final draft, then the changes must have been made by the White House and must have been motivated by nefarious, partisan considerations, and it insulted their intelligence to suggest anything else. I'm even struck by the interpretations of the newly released e-mails and how they seem to be understood in terms of personalities, I guess because that's what reporters focus on.

    On the subject, Glenn Kessler gave Obama four Pinocchios just the other day because Obama said he he had referred to an "act of terrorism" the day after Benghazi, when in fact he had referred to an "act of terror." Kessler said he had been a correspondent in Washington for years and he understood the importance attached to precise language in diplomacy. Well then, maybe Obama was parsing his language for legalistic or diplomatic reasons. That might make sense. But he's not being accused of diplomacy. He's being accused of denying the existence of an attack that obviously happened for electoral advantage. Like the average voter is going to say, "No, we weren't attacked, Obama said in passing that it was 'terror,' not terrorism."

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    1. Since the term "terrorism" is something no public intellectual or political scientist can define without causing some kind of trouble, i just want to know: when is the next time scott monje s going to be on TV again.

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    2. Still waiting anxiously by the phone.

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  4. I think it was Politico's Ben White who tweeted that about the IG report, not a conservative.

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  5. One thing that strikes me about the scandals collectively is that Benghazi probably has the most reach into the upper levels of the Obama administration - but it's also obvious that nothing at all illegal happened there. The IRS one has the greatest possibility of something illegal - but unless the story changes significantly, it seems likely it was confined to some midlevel bureaucrats in Cincinnati, and no one in D.C. was even aware any of it was going on.

    For the GOP to get any traction on these, they need to show some serious wrongdoing that was happening at the behest of the highest levels of the administration, and that seems unlikely.

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  6. I was trying the other day to think of a good past event to realistically compare Benghazi to, and I came up with Pat Tillman's death. What if, after it came out that Tillman had actually been killed by friendly fire and not by the Taliban as originally reported, Democrats behaved as if Bush had tried to cover it up? Pelosi could probably have ginned up a lot of outrage and prompted a bunch of Watergate comparisons, if the Democratic Party had been so inclined. I appreciate the note about the IRS scandal and maybe the AP scandal... it's too early to know if it's actually a big deal.

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    1. The thing I would compare it to, as I mentioned in a thread the other day, is Dick Cheney claiming that Mohamed Atta had met with Iraqi emissaries in Prague. It's the same basic thing - high government officials giving misleading reasons for why we were attacked - but of course on a much, much larger scale, and for much more serious purposes, namely, to push the country into war.

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    2. Mistakes happen, and should be explored and then forgiven... except when the mistakes happen on your opponent's watch.

      I hope that all these endless and dubious Congressional investigations make future Congresses more careful. It doesn't seem likely with the level of partisanship, but I'm still hopeful. After all, there haven't been any impeachments for about 14 years now.

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    3. The Tillman case isn't a bad comp to the worst allegations about (post-) Benghazi. There's also the Jessica Lynch story from Iraq.

      My general sense is that these are the kinds of phony spin that all nations always produce; they're misdemeanors, not felonies.

      Something like lying about torture (that is, that it happened and was policy) is far more serious; that's not spin, but entirely denying something that happened. The Atta/Iraq thing is also far more serious, since as TN said it was not just to make an outcome look prettier than it really was, but to justify launching a war.

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  7. I refuse to believe that there is anything worthy of saying in more than 140 characters.

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  8. No matter how much you defend the murder of 4 Americans and the illegal targeting of political enemies, Republicans and tea party groups are not going to let it go. I know you feel like Obama having no knowledge or control over his administration is some sort of defense, but it isn't. If illegal activities are committed for several years and bad decisions are made which result in the death of Americans, there are- and should be- consequences.

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    1. If I ever actually hear anyone defending the murder of Americans or the illegal targeting of political enemies, I'll be sure to send them your way to be straightened out.

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    2. Please, then, by all means: defend the murder of about 150,000 Iraqis and 4500 Americans.

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  9. I think there has been a real change on Benghazi. People are talking about the CIA more. By no means is it a focus of the investigation, but it's kind of clear to anyone really paying attention that it should be the focus--Benghazi appears to have been more a CIA operation which happened to have an ambassador present than a State Department operation.

    I don't think either Republicans have any incentive to go after the CIA, nor does Obama want to piss them off too badly. I think that imposes some limits on how far this could escalate.

    Re:DoJ, of course we always might learn something new, but that's true about anything. There's no scandal in what we've learned so far. (Maybe the scandal is what's legal, but that's Congress's fault.) I don't really expect further revelations because there's nothing surprising about what we've learned--the DOJ hasn't made any secret of the fact that they're working harder to find leakers (indeed, the GOP has pushed them to do so) or that they're looking at phone and email meta-data to do this. If anything, I'm kind of surprised that the AP is surprised here.

    The IRS, on the other hand, is huge. I can't believe anyone would downplay it. Even if the IG report is all there is, it's a big deal. The head of the IRS resigning is good, but if an agency is mismanaged of course the White House bears some responsibility for that. Furthermore, it actually points to a larger problem--the IRS can't possibly audit everyone uniformly, so there's always going to be an element of subjective judgment and selective enforcement. Keeping that free of partisan bias is both difficult and important--and Republicans won't be crazy to suggest that this is something we should keep in mind when crafting tax policy.

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    1. Do you know that the Whitehouse is forbidden by a law, written after Watergate from having contact with the IRS. That is why the President did not directly ask for acting Commissioner's resignation, but made it clear that he asked Jack Lew, Secretary of Treasury to do it.

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    2. I agree on the IRS, but I think it will prove to me more than just overworked bureaucrats. The Citizens United decision (1) spurred a sudden increase in the number of applicants for 501(c)(4) status, (2) spurred political groups to apply for 501(c)(4) status, many of them no doubt conservative groups inspired by Karl Rove's pathbreaking 501(c)(4), and (3) gutted the rules by which such determinations were normally made. A period of turmoil, at the very least, had to be expected. That doesn't mean it's not a big deal, and it doesn't mean it shouldn't be investigated. But it should probably call for changes other than--or in addition to--people being fired.

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    3. It's also worth noting that the IRS was under investigation for a year before the scandal broke, and it only broke because the IG report was about to come out. Again, I'm not saying it can't or shouldn't be investigated further, but a year-long IG investigation is not exactly a cover-up.

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  10. Here's a fun model for how the AP may respond:

    "How did the reporters keep from getting killed when they did stories on the Mafia in the bad old days? Answer: They had what international-relations specialists call "Second-strike capability," which served as an effective deterrent. Concretely, the Mafia knew that any strike against a reporter would lead to a devastating response, namely a whole slew of stories by newspapers on all aspects of the Mafia's local business. If a reporter was killed, all the newspapers would assign a slew of reporters to investigate and publish everything they could about the whole Mafia organization. That implicit threat kept reporters safe. In Chicago, Jake Lingle was the only reporter ever killed by the Outfit, as our Mafia is called, but it turned out that he was a Mafioso himself. (It happened in 1930, during the Capone era.)

    Following this line of reasoning, the AP's best response to the DOJ's intrusion is to assign as many investigative reporters as they can to all aspects of DOJ's activities, including Fast and Furious, the Minnesota scandal involving Tom Perez, Eric Holder's life history (including an armed take-over at Columbia during his college years), and everything else they can think of. That should even-up the scales the next time the DOJ or other government agencies think about overstepping their bounds."

    I didn't know that Holder had been part of an armed takeover of an area of Columbia that his group wanted to claim for blacks in the name of Malcolm X. Progs ... weird.

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