Tuesday night promised bombshell breaking news, after Rachel Maddow, host of MSNBC’s popular prime-time news program The Rachel Maddow Show, tweeted, “BREAKING: We’ve got Trump tax returns. Tonight, 9pm ET. MSNBC. (Seriously).”
The media promoted it.
The White House responded to it.
And many of us fell for it.
Oh, Maddow had the taxes: two pages, front and back, of President Trump’s 1040 form from 2005, which the White House acknowledged were authentic. Somewhere in a basement file cabinet, I also have two 1040 tax returns from 2005. Other than more zeros and apostrophes, Trump’s tax return and mine are quite similar.
But because Trump as president or presidential candidate has refused to release his tax returns, bucking with a tradition started by Jimmy Carter more than four decades ago, there’s considerable interest in what we cannot see. The Rachel Maddow Show clearly was tempting those in the anti-Trump crowd to tune in for a smoking gun revelation — only there was no gun, no smoke, and no victim.
That was obvious only a minute into her program when she told an audience anxious for the damning goods: “You may have heard, we’ve got some significant breaking news tonight. Donald Trump’s tax returns have surfaced. At least, a portion of Donald Trump’s past tax returns.”
And there it was, the big qualifier to her major news: The show only had “a portion” of President Trump’s tax returns, a fact she neglected to mention in her tweet for obvious reasons.
The bait-and-disappoint got worse, evident by mocking comments later on Twitter, as Maddow not only buried the lede, as we journalists say, but padded a minor story with 20 minutes of conspiratorial connect the dots — namely, Russians to Trump — a game she suggested as “Choose Your Own Adventure.”
It was the liberal equivalence of Glenn Beck in his crazed chalkboard-lecturing days on Fox News, with Maddow ending the speculative time-killing segment with reminders of the importance of having access to Trump’s tax returns, as well as speculation on why he would he withhold them, and what information they could they tell us.
As we learned after commercials, almost nothing.
Trump claimed earnings of $150 million that year, and paid $38 million in federal taxes.
Maddow’s first guest, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist and author David Cay Johnston, who runs the website DCreport.org and who received the taxes anonymously through the mail, said the real story wasn’t the taxes themselves, rather the significantly lower percentage Trump would have paid under the President’s proposed tax overhaul: more than $5 million on his $150 million in declared earnings, which is less than 3.5 percent.
“He would paid taxes at a lower rate than the bottom-half of tax payers, the poor in this country that make less than $33,000,” Johnston said.
He also suggested that “it’s entirely possible” Trump leaked the returns himself, as the billionaire is wont to do with personal material when “he thinks it’s in his interest.”
If so, going by much of the follow-up coverage, it was shrewd political move:
CNBC: “Donald Trump just got a nice victory, thanks, of all people, to Rachel Maddow.”
New York Times: “Rachel Maddow Lands a Scoop, Then Makes Viewers Wait.”
The Hill: “Maddow’s Flub is a Win for Trump.”
Having two pages of Trump’s 2005 tax returns is news. Devoting an entire hour to what is essentially a one-segment story is editorially questionable and clearly meant to draw a big audience.
But as a friend suggested minutes before The Rachel Maddow Show began, her breaking news could be even worse: another “Capone’s vault,” a reference to Geraldo Rivera’s infamous The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults live network special, which disappointed nearly 30 million viewers by revealing ... bottles and emptiness.
The difference is that Rivera didn't know nothing was there.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.
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