The IRS Is ProPublica’s Accessory

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If you’re a federal prosecutor, you might look at the sentences ProPublica published to justify its role in trafficking a decade’s worth of stolen tax documents from thousands of U.S. taxpayers.

“The confidential tax records obtained by ProPublica,” claims the nonprofit investigative reporting outfit, “show that the ultrarich effectively sidestep this system” (emphasis added).

Understand: “This system,” in ProPublica’s usage, means our income tax system; by “sidestepping,” it means legally complying with the code.

Again: “The IRS records show that the wealthiest can—perfectly legally—pay income taxes that are only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions, if not billions, their fortunes grow each year” (emphasis added).

The records “show” they paid their legal taxes; only in the most obtuse sense do tax records “show” that taxpayers didn’t pay a tax on unrealized gains that doesn’t exist as part of the tax system.

Let’s understand: If ProPublica wanted to propose a wealth tax, it could. Few subjects have been more researched, debated and theorized over than optimal capital taxation. But that’s not what ProPublica does. Over and over it uses words like “avoid” and “avoiding” for Americans not paying a nonexistent tax. By ProPublica’s reasoning, anybody is a tax avoider who engages in an untaxed activity. If you walk down the street, you are avoiding the federal walking tax.

Or take the absurdly inflated claim that its reporting “demolishes the cornerstone myth of the American tax system: that everyone pays their fair share and the richest Americans pay the most.” In my 40 years as an adult, I’ve only heard politicians decry the tax code.

Jimmy Carter

said it was a disgrace to the human race.

Joe Biden,

speaking to Congress in April, spent more words on its alleged unfairness than on any other subject.

We in journalism publish many claims that, even when the facts are accurate, are stupid. But I doubt reporters

Jesse Eisinger,

Jeff Ernsthausen

and

Paul Kiel

are so stupid they don’t know how labored and disingenuous their justifications are. The cited sentences bespeak dishonesty of intent: They suggest that, in the months ProPublica apparently spent concealing the theft, it discovered its real imperative wasn’t mining the documents for news but fashioning a claim to justify possessing them.

The words read exactly like a lawyer told a reporter: Your reporting has uncovered nothing illegal, corrupt or exceptional to justify your own actions of questionable legality. All you do is troll the documents for the names of famous rich people. Throw in some words stating a “news judgment” claim, however nonsensical, that the resulting journalism is of extraordinary public value.

And yet you can be sure, in the unlikely event that ProPublica found itself in front of a judge, it would retreat to the claim that the tax payments of the wealthy are newsworthy, period. It would not rest its bid to stay out of jail on the absurd claim that the stolen records were needed to reveal that Americans don’t pay a nonexistent tax.

ProPublica is especially foolish to revel in the fact that the taxpayer data “shows not just their income and taxes, but also their investments, stock trades, gambling winnings and even the results of audits.” Audits is a key word. The IRS is a law-enforcement agency. Taxpayers submit their returns to be vetted by an agency empowered to pursue civil and criminal charges. The only crime uncovered in ProPublica’s reporting is the one ProPublica itself participated in, illegally trafficking in these returns.

ProPublica says it doesn’t know who stole the data—it might be a foreign intelligence agency. But this is only part of what ProPublica doesn’t know. It doesn’t know if its stash constitutes an entirety of the stolen records. It doesn’t know who else might in be in possession of the stolen data. It doesn’t know if the Social Security numbers, bank accounts, email addresses and other information of thousands of taxpayers have been sold to criminals.

Journalism is not a blanket exemption to violate the law. The news was in front of ProPublica’s face: Somebody was shopping a giant, indiscriminate trove of stolen U.S. tax data. ProPublica decided it would benefit more from participating in the crime than reporting it. In its desire for a meretricious scoop, it produced a brayingly self-important but otherwise conventional critique of our tax system with one big difference: Woven through is fraudulent language to justify trafficking in stolen records.

Which brings me to a question. Why haven’t we heard from the IRS? If these are IRS records (and it’s hard to imagine how they could be anything else), doesn’t the agency owe thousands of individual taxpayers a warning that their confidential data have been released into the wild? So far, the only ones alerted are those, like

Warren Buffett

and

Jeff Bezos,

whose names ProPublica has found it useful to mention. Or should we consider the IRS now also an accessory after the fact?

Journal Editorial Report: The subject of Internal Revenue abuse is back. Image: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

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