Last night, Rachel Maddow teased an absolute bombshell.
I would argue that there is no bigger scoop in the world right now than revealing what exactly is in Donald Trump's tax returns, and the internet was set ablaze over the next hour with rampant speculation as to exactly how the face of MSNBC would bring down this administration with her own Woodward and Bernstein act. However, an hour later, the hedge began.
“We have Donald Trump's tax returns!” is exponentially more significant than “We have one form from one year of Donald Trump's tax returns!” It's the difference between traveling to the North Pole and venturing to another dimension. Two pages of anyone's 1040 form won't tell you much, yet Maddow teased it like she had a scoop that was going to shake all of Western civilization to its very core.
The open to her show expanded on this unearned hype, as she engaged in completely baseless speculation about a variety of questions surrounding the president. The implication seemed to be that his tax return would shed additional light on things like his connections to Dmitry Rybolovlev—the Russian billionaire who paid $100 million for a Florida home that Trump bought for $40 million in what is believed to be the largest transaction in U.S. housing history.
While it is curious how one of the richest men in the world could pay so much for Donald Trump's mansion at a time when the American housing market was beginning to crash, the implication becomes much less severe when you consider the fact that Ryboloblev lost $150 million on four pieces of art that he purchased from Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier. Sometimes stupidly rich people are just stupid with money that they don't really need when they want something shiny.
But that didn't stop Maddow from hinting to her audience that the “bombshell” she was conveniently going to drop after the commercial break would back up all the wild allegations she made in her initial segment. Her opening promo was so over the top that Vince McMahon probably would have told her to dial it back a bit.
When we returned from commercial, The Daily Beast had already released the details, further demonstrating the Grand Canyon-esque divide between print and TV journalism. Maddow held up two pieces of paper that told us that Donald Trump made $150 million in 2005 and he paid a higher rate on that than what Mitt Romney revealed when he ran for president in 2012—as well as what we know about what Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders pay. Yippee.
The only other useful information Rachel Maddow gave to the world in this scoop is that the returns said “client copy,” so we know that this was not an internal leak from the IRS. That didn’t stop her and David Cay Johnston from baselessly speculating that the leak came from Donald Trump at the very top of the segment which was supposed to be all about breaking the returns down.
It’s certainly possible that Trump leaked his own return, and given how quick and coordinated the response was from the White House and the alternate universe that is Breitbart, it sure seems like a real possibility given how bad the news cycle was for Trump prior to this release. However, there are a multitude of people who could have had access to this form. There are simply far too many possibilities to come to any firm conclusion as to where this form came from.
Last October, The New York Times had a much bigger scoop on Trump’s tax returns when they revealed that he lost nearly a billion dollars in 1995, and they released it with a fraction of the hype with no wild speculation and its influence still reverberates to this day—Maddow even incorporated that knowledge into her segment last night. How MSNBC and the Times handled these two reveals is a perfect contrast between cable “news” and print journalism.
Television is first and foremost, entertainment. It is designed to be consumed in a defined and finite period of time, with the focus on keeping you hooked from commercial break to commercial break. If cable news’ primary goal was to inform the public, then Rachel Maddow would have revealed the tax returns at the top of the show, and then spent the rest of her time contextualizing the release. Instead, she did a rundown of a bunch of terrifying speculation designed to make you watch the message from her corporate sponsors, and only after we paid tribute to our financial masters would she reveal the big news.
This isn’t a method to accurately provide information, it’s a form of entertainment that contains bits of information, hence: infotainment. Rachel Maddow is far from the only offender, but her “big scoop” that got whittled down more and more as she revealed what she actually had on hand demonstrated that it contained far more entertainment than information. Jamil Smith isn’t wrong when he said that Maddow released additional useful information into the world, but it wasn’t much, and the way she hyped it up ultimately abandoned a lot of the meaning behind that information. The biggest news from last night was the fact that America still has a voracious interest in Trump’s tax returns, and not anything contained in two pages of one form from one year of them.
Rachel Maddow practiced real journalism in acquiring and releasing these returns, but she lost all of those gains by promoting the reveal like this would validate all of the rampant speculation surrounding what could be in those returns. A journalist’s job is to provide context, but cable news’ format doesn’t allow for that, and instead forces their anchors to be hype men and women in order to keep us glued to our sets for their true purpose: showing us commercials. Print journalism exists to sell ads as well, but you can scroll through this column without being forced to consume them, and that is the central difference between a medium that supports journalism, and one that betrays it.
Jacob Weindling is Paste’s business and media editor, as well as a staff writer for politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.