Finding the real stories in the age of Trump is a squishy business. Which pieces of information are worth pursuing, and which — the impulsive tweets, the petty accusations, the pop cultural critiques — are merely distractions or red herrings meant to lead the public away from the truth?
One thing is clear, though: Rachel Maddow is not the story. Donald Trump’s tax returns may not be the story either, I don’t know. But Maddow certainly isn’t what we ought to be talking about today in regard to the ever-shifting sands of Trumpworld. Too many mentions of Tuesday night’s episode of “The Rachel Maddow Show” — during which she revealed two pages of Trump’s 2005 federal tax returns — have picked at the MSNBC host and thrown snark at her for taking so long — approximately 19 minutes — to get to the meat of those two pages.
“Here are some 2005 Trump tax details since Rachel Maddow’s monologue shows no sign of ending any time soon,” tweeted New York Times reporter Susanne Craig during the show. “If you have news, Rachel please tell us. Soon. I’m not young,” tweeted ESPN anchor Bob Ley.
Here’s the long story short: On Tuesday, Maddow tweeted at 7:36 p.m. that she’d be breaking news on her 9 p.m. show. Turned out reporter David Cay Johnston had received the returns in the mail anonymously — or, as he suggested, maybe from President Trump himself — and brought them to Maddow, who has been enjoying record ratings since Trump took office. For the first 19-minute segment of the show, Maddow delivered a monologue written to set up and give context to the upcoming tax revelation — about Richard Nixon’s own tax problems and why we now routinely see returns from presidents and presidential candidates, about Trump’s audit excuse for not releasing his returns. Then she brought on Johnston and dug into the scoop.
Sorry folks, but 19 minutes of context is nothing to damn in this age of Twitter-size news and attention spans. It’s even pleasingly incendiary in our current news atmosphere to make people wait, in order to spell things out carefully. In the 84 minutes between her tweet and the show, the Daily Beast had already published its story about the 2005 taxes, and the White House had already issued a statement. But still, Maddow preferred to do it her own way, deciding not to just drop the news on viewers without letting us understand its importance. Indeed, she generally opens her show with these monologues. Like the website Vox, whose mission is, as the site puts it, to “explain the news,” Maddow was focused on background and perspective.
Ultimately the scoop was minimal. The information in Trump’s returns did not point to the ever-looming Russian connection or help parse out conflicts of interest. Maddow oversold to an audience desperate for more deep reporting on the issue — not a great way to build audience trust, but as a first-time offender, she’s not nearly in the apocalypse-now category of almost every other TV news outlet. Seriously, we’re not talking about days of build-up here, or garish promos for upcoming news shows. We’re talking about some unfortunate exaggeration. Maybe some first-time “Maddow” viewers won’t return to the show, having expected a bombshell of some sort; but I don’t think her viewership is suddenly going to stop growing because of this. Her recent surge in the ratings has shown there’s definitely an appetite for smart political analysis and historical perspective.