Rachel Maddow Lands a Scoop, Then Makes Viewers Wait

Rachel Maddow had a big scoop, and she handled it her way.

With a single tweet on Tuesday, Ms. Maddow, the MSNBC anchor, set the political world ablaze, announcing at 7:36 p.m. that she was poised to reveal previously unseen tax records from President Trump on her 9 p.m. program. (“Seriously,” Ms. Maddow added.)

In the need-it-this-instant world of online news, 84 minutes struck some journalists as an awfully long time to wait. The White House took advantage, releasing a pre-emptive statement that detailed Mr. Trump’s tax figures from 2005 before MSNBC had a chance to air its own report. The Daily Beast and other news outlets ran items as well.

Ms. Maddow, who is enjoying the biggest viewership of her show’s nine-year run, did not appear to mind. She opened her program on Tuesday as she usually does: with a deliberately paced, fact-heavy monologue, in this case reviewing Mr. Trump’s past refusal to release his taxes to catch up viewers on why this new revelation mattered.

The revelation itself, however, was held back until after the first commercial break, a windup that some fellow journalists, eager for any bombshells, found exceedingly lengthy.

“If you have news, Rachel please tell us. Soon. I’m not young,” tweeted Bob Ley, an ESPN anchor.

“Of course — right after a commercial break. This is the worst episode of American Idol,” complained Zeke Miller, a White House reporter for Time.

The wait, about 20 minutes in all, may have irked political reporters, but it was of a piece with the strategy Ms. Maddow has laid out for herself and her staff. In an interview last week, she described “a real sense of responsibility” to educate her 2.6 million-strong audience, particularly those who may be casual consumers of the news.

“There’s new people here every night,” Ms. Maddow said in her NBC office in New York. “I don’t feel like I’m doing a clubhouse update. I don’t feel like I’ve got a choir that was here at last night’s practice too. I definitely feel like, hey, if you’re new, let me meet you where you are.”

Ultimately, the reporting that Ms. Maddow eventually aired on Tuesday night’s show — two pages from a single, decade-old federal tax return — was less groundbreaking than the mere fact that a portion of the president’s records had surfaced at all. The journalist who obtained the records, David Cay Johnston, a former tax reporter for The New York Times, said that the documents arrived “over the transom” in his mailbox. Mr. Johnston even speculated on-air that Mr. Trump had sent the documents himself.

The discussion between Ms. Maddow and Mr. Johnston veered into some odd directions, with Mr. Johnston mentioning a connection between Mr. Trump and the mob. And Ms. Maddow’s opening monologue raised lingering questions about links between Mr. Trump and Russia — questions that no simple 1040 form, like the one sent to Mr. Johnston, could address.

It was not until the end of the program that Ms. Maddow invited on an NBC News political reporter, Hallie Jackson, who dialed in by telephone for a more sober analysis of the tax findings. By then, Ms. Maddow’s show was about to end.

On Twitter, journalists complained that Ms. Maddow had overhyped her findings with the initial teasing tweet, noting that the information in the returns did not amount to a scandal. Others asked why so much of the focus was on Ms. Maddow and not the subject at hand. “The President of the United States has not released his tax returns,” wrote Peter Hamby, a journalist at Snapchat who previously worked for CNN. “Journalists are attacking Maddow for using her show to discuss this.”

Good reviews or bad — scoop or no scoop — Ms. Maddow’s Tuesday program is sure to keep her at the center of the political conversation. Last week, Ms. Maddow achieved a ratings milestone, beating out Fox News heavyweights Bill O’Reilly and Tucker Carlson among viewers aged 25 to 54, the most coveted demographic in television news.

“Never imagined I would want to choose a restaurant based on their willingness to turn on Rachel Maddow’s show,” the Politico reporter Josh Dawsey wrote on Twitter on Tuesday evening. “Yet here we are.”

Rachel Maddow on her show last week in New York. Credit An Rong Xu for The New York Times


Maddow tweets get White House to cough up Trump's 2005 tax numbers

The White House, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow and The Daily Beast have combined to make public that President Trump paid $38 million in taxes in 2005 on $150 million of income. $5.3 million of that was in federal income taxes, while $31 million came from the Alternative Minimum Tax, as first reported by the David Cay Johnston, a researcher who writes for The Daily Beast.

Why it matters: President Trump has never released his tax returns, saying they're under audit. The NYTimes obtained some of his old returns during the election, showing he wrote off a huge loss that would have allowed him to avoid federal income taxes for nearly 20 years.

The story started with Maddow's cryptic tweet, followed by confirmation that it was Trump.

While Maddow was winding up the story with a 25-minute opening with a series of questions on how Trump makes his money, including...
  1. If there are inexplicable dumps of foreign money into the president's coffers... couldn't those be explained through his tax returns?
  2. Is the president in a position where we need to make sure that he's not paying off foreign powers?
  3. Has he received money from sources?
  4. Has he received loans?
  5. Does the president have foreign bank accounts? If so, what banks?
  6. What is his relationship with Deutsche bank?
  7. What is his relationship with foreign sources of income?

The White House and The Daily Beast published the numbers, saying Trump paid $31 million in the "Alternative Minimum Tax" in 2005, in addition to $5.3 million in regular federal income tax.


Rachel Maddow Turned a Scoop on Donald Trump’s Taxes Into a Cynical, Self-Defeating Spectacle

At 7:36 pm Tuesday night, Rachel Maddow tweeted “BREAKING: We've got Trump tax returns. Tonight, 9pm ET. MSNBC. (Seriously),” sending the internet into a frenzy of theorizing. Did Maddow have Donald Trump’s tax returns or just one of the Trumps’ tax returns? Could this be it, the tax return that would bring down the Donald? If this was it, why wasn't MSNBC cutting into its programming, instead of running a countdown clock to Maddow’s show?  By 8:24, Maddow was tweeting that the tax return in question was Donald Trump’s 1040 from 2005. By 8:30, still half an hour before Maddow started airing, the White House had responded to the MSNBC report, saying that Trump had paid $38 million on income of $150 million that year. An hour later, about 20 minutes after The Rachel Maddow Show started, Maddow would confirm these numbers, turning her big scoop about Donald Trump’s long-missing tax returns into a cautionary tale about over-hype. Rachel Maddow, you played yourself—and us too.

“It’s been a little bit of a hullabaloo around here this evening, I apologize for being flustered,” Maddow said at the top of the hour, before confirming that her show had copies of Donald Trump’s federal tax returns, obtained by the reporter David Cay Johnston, to share with her audience. “In just a second we’re going to show you exactly what it is we’ve got,” she said, before launching, instead, into a 20-minute monologue. Maddow seemed uncharacteristically nervous as she wended her way though what could kindly be described as context and which I am unkindly describing as word salad, a long meander that was difficult to follow even without the distracting promise of a revelatory tax return at its end.

The monologue started contextually enough, with a long-winded skewering of Trump’s refusal to share his tax returns that touched on Richard Nixon, the Clintons, and his unaudited tax forms, before veering off conspiratorially. “Whether or not you are a supporter of Donald Trump,” Maddow said, “It ought to give you pause that his explanations [for not releasing his tax returns] have never made any factual sense .… When you get an excuse from them that doesn't make sense, you have to look for another reason. What’s the real explanation? Well, choose your own adventure.” She then launched into a long hypothetical about a particular Russian oligarch’s possible relationship to Trump that touched on Florida real estate, Deutsche Bank, and Preet Bharara, that Trump’s tax returns—though not, as it would turn out, the ones she actually had—could conceivably clear up.

The longer Maddow went on, ever deeper into a conspiratorial thicket, the clearer it became that whatever tax returns Maddow had, they weren’t as juicy as the ones she was talking about. If she had anything that damning, she would have shared them from the start. TV is a ratings game, but an entire episode about highly damaging tax returns is just as likely to get you great ratings as milking the possibility that you have highly damaging tax returns, and less likely to get you compared to Geraldo. Maddow even went so far as to hold the tax returns back until after the first commercial break, as if we were watching an episode of The Bachelor and not a matter of national importance—because we weren’t, in fact, watching a matter of national importance, just a cable news show trying to set a ratings record.

After the first break— at which point the tax returns were already available on the internet and glossed by the Daily Beast—Maddow was joined by Johnston, and she began by asking him how he knew Trump hadn’t sent the returns himself. Johnston said that he could have. A few hours after Maddow finished airing, this has become a popular conspiracy theory, simply because, if Donald Trump were to share any of his tax returns, the 2005 1040 seems like a good candidate. Trump paid taxes at a rate of around 4 percent, but because of the alternate minimum tax, he also paid an additional $31 million. The form revealed that, rather than not paying taxes and making no money, Trump paid $38 million on $150 million in income. Maddow promised to pull a sordid revelation out of a hat and instead plucked out … Trump’s credibility? Maddow was soon parsing, asking Johnston to explain that Trump is currently trying to do away with the AMT, which, unfair as it may be, still wouldn’t change the amount he paid in 2005.

As the show went on, it became clear that Maddow knew she didn't quite have the scoop that had been promised. “What would we have to see, what would we hope to get in mail,” she asked Johnston, “if we were going to get to the real meat of Donald Trump’s foreign ties?”—i.e. what would be more meaningful than the tax form that we have? Speaking to Chris Hayes and Johnston, she said, “The story here to me is, a) we have obtained this [tax form], b) that this stuff is obtainable.” “BREAKING: Trump’s tax returns theoretically obtainable. Tonight, 9pm ET. MSNBC. (Seriously)” does make for a less rousing tweet.

Trump’s tax returns, whatever information they happen to contain, constitute a major scoop. Maddow’s social media team ensured the highest possible ratings for that scoop. But if ever a story should have been delivered in a stentorian, fuddy-duddy, nonpartisan manner, this was it. In positioning it as a grand revelation, a vital step in comprehending Trump’s corruption, MSNBC created an exceedingly cynical spectacle. By playing into the network’s loyal liberal audience’s fantasy that there exists a Trump silver bullet, it instead delivered Trump a positive news cycle— the guy pays taxes! Who knew!— amidst the debacle of the AHCA, along with more evidence that the media is aligned against him. The lesson? Don’t tell us you have news, just tell us the news.

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