As I watched Tuesday while the anchors on "Fox & Friends" leveled unsubstantiated charges against Rep. Elijah Cummings as if they were facts, I couldn't help thinking how much more dangerous Sen. Joe McCarthy might have been in the 1950s if there had been a show like this to amplify his reckless allegations.
The Fox News morning show was playing one of cable talk's dirtier games, and the longtime Democratic congressman from Baltimore was its target for his role in the House IRS probe. The lightweight, smiley morning crew — Steve Doocy, Brian Kilmeade and Elisabeth Hasselbeck — were saying things no responsible anchors would. They were the kind of things that could seriously damage the reputation of an ideological foe.
Remember when Doocy in 2012 made up parts of a quote he attributed to President Barack Obama so that it sounded as if the president were attacking Mitt Romney's privileged background? Under pressure from management, Doocy apologized.
Or how about the four-minute attack ad on Obama that same year, which Doocy and his cohorts introduced, aired and praised as great journalism? Fox management repudiated the ad as a mistake by a rogue associate producer after I and other critics tore into it. It disappeared from the channel's website by noon.
Fox management's deftness at distancing itself from the morning crew when blowback gets too harsh looks to be part of the game to some analysts. Salon termed Doocy "Roger Ailes' attack poodle" in a 2011 piece chronicling "smears" by the show host.
And here we were again Tuesday, with another depressing reminder of how our media fail us and why we are such a misinformed, confused, angry and polarized people.
It was Tax Day, April 15, and "Fox & Friends" was playing straight into voter resentment with a report on emails between Cummings' staff of the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform and the IRS. The 2012 emails sought information on a Texas conservative group, True The Vote. A lawyer for the group was suggesting on air that Team Cummings' emails "put it on the radar" for IRS scrutiny. And that was being offered as evidence of collusion between Cummings and the IRS in targeting Obama opponents.
"There's explosive new evidence," Hasselbeck said of the emails, "that [Cummings] was leading the charge against conservatives the entire time."
Cummings is the ranking minority member on the panel, which is investigating the IRS for allegedly treating tea party and other conservative groups unfairly. He and the chairman, California Republican Darrell Issa, have been at each other's throats throughout the hearings — most famously on March 5, when Issa had Cummings' microphone cut off as Cummings tried to question retired IRS executive Lois Lerner.
"The House oversight committee chairman," Hasselbeck continued, "actually produced emails from 2012 that show Lois Lerner accommodating the request from Elijah Cummings ... providing information about an organization called True The Vote, a conservative organization that was singled out and scrutinized [by the IRS]."
"So let me get this straight," Doocy said, picking up the baton as the screen filled with video of Cummings and Lerner. "What you just said, that guy right there, the top Democrat on the House oversight [committee], was coordinating with that woman, Lois Lerner, targeting a Texas conservative group called True The Vote. They were coordinating to crack down on them. That is so wrong, isn't it?"
It doesn't take much fact-checking to show how fast and loose Doocy and Hasselbeck were playing with anything resembling facts.
Start with the "explosive new evidence," which was neither explosive nor new. It came from a news release put out six days earlier by Issa's staff on the House panel. It is headlined "New IRS E-mails: Lois Lerner funneled Elijah Cummings Info on targeted Conservative Group."
It repeats the accusation that letters from Cummings' staff "might have been involved in putting True The Vote on the radar screen" of the IRS.
But the news release proves none of that. In fact, what the full range of emails, which were made available by the IRS in response to requests from the committee, actually shows is Cummings staffers asking for "publicly available information" on True The Vote. That would be information available to anyone.
And the emails from the IRS show that executives there triple-checked to make sure only such information was included.
Even though Issa had the same emails Cummings did, he nevertheless wrote and made public a letter to Cummings signed by him and five other GOP panel members saying the emails "raise concerns that the IRS improperly shared protected taxpayer information with your staff."
Issa also had the emails to show that the IRS was investigating True The Vote six months before Cummings' staff contacted it. Six months! What a convenient fact to overlook amid the "explosive new evidence."
In a statement to The Baltimore Sun last week, Cummings said, "You know it's bad when you cut off the microphone of a Member of Congress, but it's worse when you publicly attack staffers for inappropriate activity with cherry-picked emails, especially when you have in your own files documents that show the exact opposite. I hope we can return to a level of civility on this committee."
Cummings was referring to Issa's accusations against him, which Fox essentially took from the news release and presented as fact. Cummings has since written and posted letters online addressing the accusations of "coordinating" and being the recipient of "funneled" taxpayer information from Lerner.
"It's rich to hear a Member, who has ignored the historical record to demagogue as 'McCarthyite' an essential investigation into wrongdoing at the IRS, talk about a return to civility," Frederick Hill, spokesman for Issa's committee, wrote in an email response to the statement from Cummings. "Evidence has shown that the rhetoric and political pressure on the IRS by elected Democrats contributed to IRS targeting."
A spokeswoman for Fox News said "Fox & Friends" is "an opinion show and is not part of the hard-news lineup" at the channel.
She pointed to interviews that Megyn Kelly did on April 10 and 14 with the founder of and a lawyer for True The Vote, respectively, in which the prime-time show host told viewers that Cummings denies the accusations True The Vote was making in those interviews.
"He says his communications were all appropriate," Kelly said in the April 14 interview, "but he has not elaborated on that and won't come give us a full statement, which we would be happy to hear him out on."
After just four days of reporting and fact-checking the story, I don't pretend to know all the facts. Overall, I am in no position to say whether Cummings behaved ethically.
But I do know there is no evidence that has been produced at this point for the accusations leveled against him as fact on "Fox & Friends" on Tuesday morning. I also know there was evidence available to "Fox & Friends" that Cummings' staff could not have flagged True The Vote for the IRS.
The IRS emails released by Issa himself further show Cummings' staff asking only for "publicly available information," and IRS officials double- and triple-checking to make sure only such information was released. Hardly "coordinating" to "crack down" on anyone. That's what the emails not reported by "Fox & Friends" as part of its "explosive new evidence" show, anyway.
Maybe I don't have as fine a moral compass as Steve Doocy. But given that evidence, leveling such a grave accusation against a member of Congress as conspiring with a federal agency to attack political opponents just seems wrong, doesn't it?