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Rachel Maddow and Those Anticlimactic Tax Returns (Column)

Did Rachel Maddow flub the biggest moment of her career?

Tuesday night, about 90 minutes before her show began, MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow tweeted that the evening’s episode of “The Rachel Maddow Show” would be about President Donald Trump’s long-undisclosed tax returns. The internet, as it is wont to do, got extremely excited over a minimal amount of information — fueled by a few pompously worded statements from the White House and widespread, fervent enthusiasm for the termination of Trump’s fascistic presidency through the righteous power of fact-based journalism.

As it happened, Maddow’s show had only obtained two pages of Trump’s 2005 federal tax return — two pages with “CLIENT COPY” stamped on the front, indicating that the return was leaked not from the Internal Revenue Service but from someone connected to Trump. It is, of course, significant when anyone obtains leaked information about previously undisclosed but much clamored-for information about the financial holdings and business interests of the leader of the free world. But Maddow’s presentation disappointed viewers tuning in because of the hype; after 20 minutes of context and a cut to commercial, her discussion of the two-page returns with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist David Cay Johnston (the reporter who received the leaked tax returns) merely indicated that Trump is in fact a multi-millionaire who paid a legal amount of taxes in 2005. (Indeed, the documents were so favorable for Trump that Johnston speculated, rather provocatively, that perhaps the president had the returns leaked himself — a statement that had the effect of making Maddow’s big reveal look instead like she was carrying water for her purported enemy.) The internet, as it is wont to do, proceeded to become extremely annoyed about the gap between expectation and result.

Undoubtedly, Maddow could have handled the returns better. Two pages of returns that indicate no special wrongdoing do not merit a countdown clock on MSNBC, which ran down throughout “All In With Chris Hayes.” (Hayes said he was receiving tweets during the last segment of his show urging him to get off the air already so that Maddow could start talking.) Maddow’s 20-minute introduction to the returns may be what she always does on her typically news-magaziney show — and it may be a good way of securing viewers through the first break, to keep her ratings robust — but it came off as manipulative, which doesn’t make those viewers particularly happy. If news is breaking news — especially if it could potentially change the framework of the American political landscape — than news institutions who have a 24-hour platform owe it to their readers to break it immediately. Conversely, if news isn’t breaking news — well, in a landscape where there is plenty of horrified outrage to go around, why take up space with a non-story?

On the other hand — was it really a non-story? In those opening 20 minutes, on a show that Maddow and MSNBC knew was going to get an influx of viewers beyond her typical viewership, Maddow laid out a case for why the returns matter that included information that was an amalgam of information previously buried several paragraphs deep in hefty reported pieces about Trump’s ties to Russia, Turkey, Cyprus, and China. Maddow’s strength is not in reporting new information, but in contextualizing extant data; her opening segment Tuesday night was one of her best monologues to the camera, once it became possible to appreciate it without waiting for the big reveal. Nielsen ratings on viewership aren’t available yet, but it seems probable that Maddow reminded a very large audience that there’s a bigger story here that the Trump administration continues to shamelessly hide — until the moments where journalists are actually holding documents, at which point the White House feverishly puts out defensive, pouting statements about those pesky, meddling journalists.

Journalism, like anything worth doing, is a time-consuming and detailed process of accumulation. It is a very childish snit indeed to be annoyed that Maddow’s journalistic scoop lacked the dramatic stakes and plot twists of a scripted program; in any other context, we would probably agree that journalism should not be subject to the same metrics as “The Walking Dead.” The problem is not her — but that journalism is slow and boring, audiences are impatient, and Donald Trump, still unchecked, continues to wreak havoc on the American government. And because of the profit imperatives of ratings for cable news, Maddow is obligated to hold onto viewers for as long as possible — through as many commercial breaks that pay her bills as possible.

Yes, it was a huge moment, and with a bigger scoop, Maddow could have made history. But the anger at Maddow seems misdirected; where would a bigger scoop have come from, and is Maddow really responsible for not obtaining it? The MSNBC anchor was doing her job, albeit imperfectly; her promotion of her own show was seized upon by a public desperate for deliverance from some liberal hero or another — for someone else to solve the problem of Donald Trump. Unfortunately, Donald Trump is a problem not so easily solved. Sure, Maddow could have structured her hour differently, but she was not going to save America in an hourlong program on Tuesday night.


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