What was touted as a very big night for Rachel Maddow ended up with a massive misfire.
It’s not that her disclosure of Donald Trump’s 2005 tax return—the first two pages, at least—was a non-story. It’s that it wasn’t treated as a serious news story.
Instead, the MSNBC anchor turned it into a long, arduous, embarrassingly partisan spectacle that was widely mocked, even by some on the left.
If she had just handled it as a straight news story, she would have been fine. Instead, she wound up fumbling away her scoop.
As Maddow touted and tweeted and just plain delayed, she gave the White House time to put out the tax information—Trump paid $38 million in taxes on income of about $150 million—along with a shot at the “dishonest media.” And that actually helped the president by showing that he paid substantial taxes, the 25 percent rate being far higher than Mitt Romney’s.
Maddow is smart and a talented broadcaster. But she and the people around her botched this one.
The “Rachel Maddow Show” got the story from David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times reporter who says the tax return just showed up in his mailbox. It is illegal, and an outrageous invasion of privacy, for anyone to leak someone else’s tax return. But if Johnston and Maddow were passive recipients, it gets them off the ethical hook.
Maddow first tweeted that she had the Trump returns on 7:26 p.m. on Tuesday. She began her 9 p.m. show with a rambling, 20-minute monologue about all the questions raised by Trump’s taxes, then teased the big reveal after the next commercial break.
Twitter was on fire by then, with some comparing it to the hyperbole of Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone’s vault—a crown that Geraldo happily handed to Rachel yesterday.
Maddow seemed downright gleeful during the hour, saying things like: “For the record, the First Amendment gives us a right to publish this return. It is not illegally published. Nor are we fake. Pinch me. I’m real.”
Not that that stopped the president from tweeting yesterday: “Does anybody really believe that a reporter, who nobody ever heard of, ‘went to his mailbox’ and found my tax returns? @NBCNews FAKE NEWS!”
Well, David Cay Johnston is not exactly unknown. In fact, he wrote a negative book on Trump last year, compared him to P.T. Barnum and said: “Donald doesn’t know anything.” Johnston says he has known Trump for decades.
Perhaps the weakest part of the show was Johnston’s speculation that maybe Trump himself sent him the returns. First, he has no idea. Second, if the Trump team was behind this, it’s unlikely they would have picked Johnston. Nor should we speculate, as some conservatives have, that this was an IRS leak, especially since the two-page summary says “Client Copy.”
Mediaite criticized “Maddow’s heavy hype, low-delivery script” and concluded:
“Rachel Maddow just trolled all of us for ratings.”
“The longer Maddow went on, ever deeper into a conspiratorial thicket,” said Slate, “the clearer it became that whatever tax returns Maddow had, they weren’t as juicy as the ones she was talking about. If she had anything that damning, she would have shared them from the start…
“Maddow even went so far as to hold the tax returns back until after the first commercial break, as if we were watching an episode of The Bachelor and not a matter of national importance ...
“If ever a story should have been delivered in a stentorian, fuddy-duddy, nonpartisan manner, this was it. In positioning it as a grand revelation, a vital step in comprehending Trump’s corruption, MSNBC created an exceedingly cynical spectacle.”
Rachel Maddow will never be a fuddy-duddy. But she should have reined it in on this story.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.