Trump Tax Reveal: Major Scoop or Overhyped Nothingburger?
Traditional cable television and the real-time news environment of Twitter have always felt a little like opposite ends of a spectrum. They felt even farther apart than usual on Tuesday evening thanks to a President Donald Trump tax “scoop” revealed on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show.
Political analysts and Washington insiders of various stripes have been calling on Trump to release his tax returns since before he became president. So when Maddow announced via Twitter that she had them and would be releasing them live on her show at 9 p.m. Eastern, it triggered a tidal wave of anticipation, both on the social network and elsewhere.
But regular denizens of the Twitter media-sphere have the patience of someone sitting on a hot stove. By the time the show aired, Maddow had been attacked for overhyping the release, dragging her feet, and a dozen other alleged misdemeanors.
One of the main criticisms: Hogging the information just to support the network’s archaic primetime news schedule. “Why not break it rather than wait until your show’s scheduled time?” asked Huffington Post editor-in-chief and former New York Times writer Lydia Polgreen.
For some who have watched similar news events break or leak out on Twitter (TWTR) for years, the Trump tax story had echoes of CNN host Wolf Blitzer (TWX) stalling for time until President Barack Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011—hours after the news had already been distributed far and wide on Twitter.
The dissatisfaction with Maddow continued after her show began because the MSNBC host—presumably catering to an audience that isn’t on Twitter every second of the day—started by explaining the background of the Trump tax return saga, and why it was important. Then, in classic cable TV news style, she cut to commercial, which enraged the media community on Twitter even further.
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This wasn’t just about Twitter being impatient, however. By the time Maddow got to the release—which came via Daily Beast reporter David Cay Johnston—the White House had already released the pertinent information from the documents, and half a dozen sites had published stories based on it.
All of this may not matter in the long term to Maddow, whose show is already one of the top most-viewed cable shows in the United States. As the New York Times explained, her style is to focus on telling people what they don’t know, not to cater to the real-time news junkies on Twitter.
It’s also worth remembering that Twitter’s audience is relatively small, and composed largely of media addicts. That said, however, will this scoop be remembered as one of the triumphs of cable journalism in the age of Trump? Probably not.
For one thing, the leaked documents contain only two pages from Trump’s 2005 returns. And those pages contain very little that is damning—or arguably even interesting—in the context of Trump’s broader financial situation, his ties to Russia, and other information that might be important as far as his presidency is concerned.
The release was so lackluster, in fact, that Johnston himself said there’s a chance Trump or someone close to him actually leaked the documents in order to show that he did pay a significant amount of taxes. (A theory supported by the fact that the pages are stamped “Client Copy.”)
Conservatives and right-wing news sites, including Breitbart News, trumpeted the fact that the Maddow segment actually made Trump look good rather than bad, and was therefore what some like to call a “nothingburger.”
Maddow’s supporters have argued that having access to any Trump tax documents is better than having none at all, and that the MSNBC host’s intention was to put the tax story into a broader context as part of an ongoing investigation. In other words, judging her (or Johnston) by a single story misses the larger point.
As overdone as the Twitter backlash might have been, however, the reality is that Maddow’s reveal had a lot more flash and sizzle to it than on which it actually delivered. It might not have been the 2017 version of the mystery of Al Capone’s vault (a legendary primetime TV whiff from Geraldo Rivera in 1986), but it wasn’t much of a blockbuster either.