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Opinion Fox News can’t handle Rachel Maddow’s tax scoop

Rachel Maddow. (Ali Goldstein/MSNBC/Associated Press)

The world would be a much better place if cable-news outlets would act like newspapers when they have scoops. Which is to say, just publish them. Cable news, however, is cable news — an industry that tussles over ratings to such a degree that quiet humility has ceased to be an option. If your show has something new, it behooves you to hype it. And so, early yesterday evening, the Twitter account of the “Rachel Maddow Show” promised viewers this:

And once Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC program started, the host didn’t exactly get right into the nitty-gritty. Instead, she behaved like Rachel Maddow. “You may have heard, we’ve got some significant breaking news tonight. Donald Trump’s tax returns have surfaced, at least a portion of Donald Trump’s past tax returns. What we have tonight has been turned over to a reporter,” said Maddow, referring to former New York Times reporter David Cay Johnston. It marks the first time that a news organization would publish portions of Trump’s federal tax returns, though the New York Times last year published tidbits of some state returns.

Rachel Maddow takes conspiracy theorizing mainstream with Trump tax ‘scoop’

“When Donald Trump declared as a presidential candidate that he would not release his tax returns, he became the first president since the Watergate era to refuse to release his returns,” said Maddow as part of a nearly 20-minute riff on presidents, Trump and tax-return releases.

Only later, after a commercial break, did Maddow address the specifics, along with Johnston himself, a tax expert and author of a book on Trump. For this delay, Maddow has taken an unquantifiable measure of guff. “Rachel Maddow Lands a Scoop, Then Makes Viewers Wait,” reads the headline on a story in the New York Times. Twitter had fun with it:

CNN media correspondent Dylan Byers penned a skeptical story on the affair under this headline, “Rachel Maddow’s epic buildup to … 2 pages from Trump’s 2005 tax returns.” How, precisely, did Maddow manage to screw things up? Byers explains: “By the time Maddow got around to sharing that information, it had already been supplied by the White House and published on The Daily Beast, where Johnston is a columnist.”

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That timeline is accurate. The White House indeed issued a statement last night on this matter. “Before being elected president, Mr. Trump was one of the most successful businessmen in the world with a responsibility to his company, his family and his employees to pay no more tax than legally required,” read the statement, in part. It included a knock on Maddow: “You know you are desperate for ratings when you are willing to violate the law to push a story about two pages of tax returns from over a decade ago.” And the White House confirmed that Trump had paid $38 million in federal taxes in 2005, per Maddow’s inquiry.

The real story in Trump’s tax returns

This morning, Fox News media critic Howard Kurtz picked up on the timing issue: “This was a big-time blunder by Rachel Maddow…. By touting the Twitter and hyping it, she gave the White House time to put out a statement of its own not just criticizing the media but confirming the basic facts that President Trump did in fact pay $38 million in taxes that year, so she fumbled away the scoop.”

Rachel Maddow's not-so-big reveal of Trump's tax returns (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

That’s one narrow, shallow and ignorant way of looking at the sequence of events. A less narrow, shallow and ignorant perspective would acknowledge that … RACHEL MADDOW AND DAVID CAY JOHNSTON FORCED THE WHITE HOUSE TO ISSUE A STATEMENT DISCLOSING INFORMATION ABOUT PRESIDENT TRUMP’S TAXES. Have you ever pulled off such a stunt, Howard Kurtz? Remember, this is a president who, as Maddow herself highlighted, has bucked decades of tradition by refusing to disclose his taxes. The White House’s Kellyanne Conway in January even sounded a cocky note about the refusal to go transparent: “We litigated this all through the election. People didn’t care,” said Conway. So: Whether the White House issued its statement before Maddow’s show, in the middle of Maddow’s opening monologue, during the first commercial break, right when she was clearing her throat — who cares?

Also on Fox News this morning, host Bill Hemmer said that Maddow’s “bombshell” had “fizzled.” Well, that fizzled bombshell found its way onto the front pages of the New York Times and The Washington Post. And why? Not because the two pages showed anything scandalous about Donald Trump, but because it told us things we didn’t know about his taxes — again, not surprising in light of his stonewalling. That the bar for information about Donald Trump’s taxes is very low is not the fault of Rachel Maddow. As it turned out, there was plenty of substance in the disclosures, as the New York Times explained:

Nothing in the two pages produced on Tuesday night suggested any ties with Russia. Nor did they provide much information about his businesses that was not previously known. But they showed that the vast bulk of the federal income taxes he paid in 2005, $31 million, was paid under the alternative minimum tax, which Mr. Trump wants to abolish.
That tax serves as a backstop to the ordinary income tax and is intended to prevent wealthy Americans from paying no income tax at all. Without it, Mr. Trump would have paid about $5 million in regular taxes, plus nearly $2 million in self-employment taxes, on $153 million in income in 2005.

The president wants to abolish the part of the tax code that stings him the hardest. In what news world is that not a bombshell?

Fox News short-circuited over their competitor’s good fortune. On “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” the host alleged that the NBC “brass” intentionally leaked the “Access Hollywood” tape to The Washington Post back in October because “they wanted to hurt Trump before the presidential debate two days later.” Carlson’s guest, Joe Concha of the Hill, called Maddow’s tax scoop a “nothingburger.”

Is Fox News part of the mainstream media? It depends.

Sean Hannity, chief cheerleader for Donald Trump, stepped up the attacks on Maddow’s employer. Just look at the screen that accompanied the host’s rant:

After playing clips of NBC News/MSNBC clips about Trump, Hannity riffed, “All these conspiracies — it’s a concerted effort by a so-called news organization. Why? Perhaps to take down the president? Steve Bannon, I argue, was right: The alt-left propaganda media is the opposition party in America today. They’re not news anymore. And by the way, did NBC News care when the IRS targeted conservatives specifically to intimidate them?” More: “What Rachel Maddow, if you could stomach — I had to laugh; it actually made me laugh, frankly, harder than I have in ten years — was a flat-out pathetic conspiratorial attempt to smear the president.”

It bears noting that “The Rachel Maddow Show” is starting to best Fox News in a key television rating metric. That is a big deal in the media world. Could we be witnessing the coalescence of the Trump opposition into a bona fide cable-news audience — one that a channel like MSNBC can cultivate? And could the freakout from Hannity, Kurtz & Co. signal that Fox News is very, very worried about this prospect?