The Anatomy of Rachel Maddow’s Rollout of Trump’s Tax Returns

On Tuesday, March 14 at 7:36 p.m., MSNBC political analyst Rachel Maddow tweeted that she had received “Trump tax returns” and would discuss them on her show at 9 p.m.

What followed was a series of events that left many viewers and pundits debating if Maddow had overhyped her scoop or not. Either way, the delivery of this breaking news became the story – more so than the news of Trump’s leaked 2005 tax return itself.

Two questions percolated as the evening played out: Was what Maddow had in her possession important enough to warrant this much excitement? And, as many first-time Maddow viewers wondered, why was she taking so long to get to the meat of the story?

Maddow herself cast doubt over the revelatory nature of the documents when she tweeted at 8:24 p.m. that she only had access to President Trump’s 1040 form from 2005, which limited the chances of providing mind-blowing information.

Washington Examiner finance reporter Joseph Lawler told MediaFile he “wouldn’t have expected” any damning news coming from those documents, which only show Trump’s “bottom-line numbers.”

“What we really would’ve been interested in … were disclosures of all his income,” he said.

By the time Maddow’s report aired at 9 p.m., the White House had released a statement that claimed in 2005, Trump paid $38 million in taxes on $150 million in income — exactly what Maddow’s documents showed. The Daily Beast also beat her to the air with a story on the tax return documents.

Maddow began her show by explaining the documents were originally given to her by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Cay Johnston, who had published the two-page tax return on his website, DCReports.org, as her report was airing.

She then proceeded to spend a half hour providing background on what the tax returns could say, before finally diving into the heart of the story that anyone with a Twitter feed could have accessed almost an hour earlier.

Many viewers and journalists were irked by Maddow sticking so vehemently to her show’s format, which is designed to provide context before diving into the news itself.

Politico senior media writer Jack Shafer wrote that Maddow “whipped up a cumulus-sized head of froth” placed atop a “one-ounce scoop.” Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan called the show a “master class” in burying the lede.

“When you see Rachel Maddow saying, ‘We have Donald Trump’s tax returns, watch at 9,’ and you have to wait an hour and a half to see those, a lot of people, particularly reporters, were disappointed,” Politico media reporter Kelsey Sutton told MediaFile.

Maddow’s rollout of Trump’s tax returns even got the Stephen Colbert treatment in a sketch where Colbert “pulls a Rachel Maddow,” by taking a long time to tell a joke that he facetiously claims irked Trump.

Lawler thinks there was legitimate news to come out of Maddow’s scoop, mainly that “Donald Trump did pay federal income taxes in 2005.” He said it had been speculated that he might not have paid taxes after the New York Times released his 1995 returns, which showed massive losses, in October 2016.

“Even though Maddow didn’t have the smoking gun to end Trump’s presidency, I think this was a legitimate scoop,” he said.

Shafer referred to Maddow “whipping up” a froth about the tax returns, but recognized that the “hotdogging” fell in line with a long-standing tactic: add a dash of sensationalism, attract eyes and your audience. Sutton did not take any issue with Maddow keeping to her show’s format, but agreed that because the news she had wasn’t game-changing, Maddow was probably trying to “milk it for all it was worth.”

“It wasn’t decades of tax returns, which I think is what is implied when someone says tax returns, plural,” Sutton said. “I think this is a prime example of prime-time television and its sensationalist style. What else should we have expected from Rachel Maddow at 9 p.m. on MSNBC?”

One thing Sutton and Lawler both believe Maddow definitively proved: There is an insatiable public appetite to see full copies of Trump’s most recent tax returns.

“The public is going to want to see his full tax returns … to see who he’s doing business with, where he earns his money and what taxes he pays,” Lawler said.

Sutton called Maddow and Johnston’s work a “drip drip” in the quest to either expose or force Trump to release his tax returns.

“If somebody has access to those and wants to leak it, this has proved there is a massive audience for that sort of information,” she said. “So I don’t think it’s over.”

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