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How not to connect the IRS dots

Last week, the Daily Caller and Fox News thought they'd identified a "smoking gun" in the IRS controversy -- relying on publicly available visitors logs, the
Former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman
Former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman

Last week, the Daily Caller and Fox News thought they'd identified a "smoking gun" in the IRS controversy -- relying on publicly available visitors logs, the outlets reported late last week that former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman visited the White House 157 times between 2009 and 2012. This was clear evidence of ... something.

Except, it wasn't. Not only was the total uninteresting, it was also wrong -- The Atlantic's Garance Franke-Ruta found that Shulman had been cleared for a series of routine White House gatherings, but only attended 11 events. The Daily Caller and Fox News got Politico to bite, but everyone else quickly realized this story was a dud.

But that's the funny thing about Republican media chasing bogus stories: there's always another one right around the corner.

The controversy over IRS targeting of conservative groups took a new turn this weekend when right-leaning websites drew a connection between the agency's former head and his wife's employment at a liberal group.The conservative website Breitbart posted that "the goal of Public Campaign is to target political groups like the conservative non-profits at issue in the IRS scandal," naming the campaign finance reform group where Doug Shulman's wife, Susan Anderson, is the senior program adviser.

Hmm. So, in this new story, the man Bush/Cheney appointed to lead the IRS secretly targeted conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status because he's married to a woman who works for a group opposed to said organizations.

You're probably already rolling your eyes -- it's the appropriate reaction -- because as conspiracy theories go, this one's awfully silly. For one thing, there's no evidence the IRS targeted conservative groups. For another, there's no reason to believe Doug Shulman had anything to do with the bureaucratic errors that created the controversy in the first place.

As for his wife, Susan Anderson does work at Public Campaign, but the group's "goal" has nothing to do with targeting far-right organizations. Rather, it's a non-partisan group that works on campaign-finance reform. After the controversy first arose, Public Campaign endorsed an investigation into the IRS's activities, but said, "There are legitimate questions to be asked about political groups that are hiding behind a 501(c)4 status. It's unfortunate a few bad apples at the IRS will make it harder for those questions to be asked without claims of bias."

For the Daily Caller, this is proof of nefarious motivations that somehow connect back to the former IRS chief.

Josh Marshall said something last week that resonated with me:

"[A]s a group, the standards of most institutional right wing journalism are just so appallingly bad that their stories simply aren't credible.... [I]f you wonder why conservative scandal mongers can't have nice things, look at the conservative media."

Examples to reinforce this keep popping up.

As we've discussed before, the point isn't that one news organization or another will not sometimes make mistakes -- I've run my share of corrections myself over the last decade -- but rather, the point is that there are serious institutional flaws in conservative media that encourage and perpetuate ideologically driven mistakes and reports that no serious person would find credible.

I'd encourage those involved in conservative media -- or just as importantly, those who rely on conservative media as reliable sources of accurate news and analysis -- to start asking some basic questions. How many of you took "Skewed Polls" seriously? How about "Friends of Hamas"? How many felt embarrassed running with Bob Woodward's claims about White House threats? How many ran paid propaganda from the Malaysian government?

How many ran reports about Obama's non-existent library using Reagan's childhood home as a parking lot? How many said Hillary Clinton may have been faking a concussion? How many bought into the reports about Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.)? How many uncritically ran with strange conspiracy theories about Benghazi, Fast & Furious, imaginary voter fraud, birth certificates, ACORN, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics?

And yet, the machine just keeps going. Doug Shulman visited the White House 157 times! He didn't? Never mind, let's talk about his wife! That didn't pan out? Let's move on to something new!

This is pointless and counter-productive.