How Lazy Reporting Made Rand Paul Look Like a Conspiracy Theorist

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
May 20 2013 10:25 AM

How Lazy Reporting Made Rand Paul Look Like a Conspiracy Theorist

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Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., discusses the IRS scandal at a news conference on May 16, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Sen. Rand Paul appeared on CNN's State of the Union yesterday, and the way the network's spun that interview, you'd think he said something crazy. Here's the end of the segment, with relevant sections in bold, as Candy Crowley asked Paul whether the IRS had political motivations behind its grilling of Tea Party groups.

CROWLEY: Well, they say it's a mistake. The question is whether it's political.
PAUL: Well, I think we're going to have to see the memorandum. Apparently, there is a policy, and I think we're going to find that there's a written policy that says that we were targeting people who were opposed to the president. And when that comes forward, we need to know who wrote the policy and who approved the policy. I can't believe that one agent sort of started this, one rogue agent started this, because it seems to be too widespread. And, we do need to get to the bottom of this, but I think what the American people want is just like on Benghazi.
Why does Benghazi go on? No one was ever fired? So, people made tragic errors. No one's accepting responsibility and no one was fired. Same with the IRS, they're having some commissioners resign who were going to resign already, and people still saying what was their policy? Who wrote the policy, and now, there's rumors that who wrote the policy is the person running Obamacare, which doesn't give us a lot of confidence about Obamacare?
CROWLEY: Senator, I have to run. I'm way over on this, but I have to just go back to something you said. Are you telling me you think there's a memo somewhere in which someone said in the memo we're targeting people who are going after the president? Is that what I heard you say?
PAUL: Well, we keep hearing the reports and we have several specifically worded items saying who was being targeted. In fact, one of the bullet points says those who are critical of the president. So, I don't know if that comes from a policy, but that's what's being reported in the press.
CROWLEY: OK.
PAUL: And reported orally. I haven't seen a policy statement, but I think we need to see that.

CNN's online wrap of the interview makes it sound like Paul had journeyed to Cloudcookooland. "Pressed for more precise details about the memo he was referring to," writes Ashley Killough, "Paul said he hasn't seen such a policy statement but has heard about it."

You know who else has "heard about" this statement? Anyone who actually read the IG report. On Page 6, investigators re-create the events of May 2010, when the Determinations Unit for the tax-exempt office "began developing a spreadsheet that would become known as the 'Be On the Look Out' listing." The report didn't supply the memo itself, but it included this cheat sheet.

Screen shot 2013-05-20 at 10.18.46 AM

In his CNN interview, Paul deviates only a little bit from the IG report; the groups that "criticize how the country is being run" become "groups who are critical of the president." But that's a pretty minor detail, and the people suggesting that Paul spun some wild conspiracy theory need to check themselves.

(Side note: Paul goes too far when he says "there's rumors that who wrote the policy is the person running Obamacare." The IG report credits BOLO to the Determinations Unit, not to the tax-exempt organizations commissioner at the time, Sarah Hall Ingram. In 2012 Ingram was moved over to run the burgeoning Affordable Care Act program. But nobody, up to now, has suggested that she wrote the key memo.)

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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