Last night’s headlines, about 30 minutes before Maddow’s show went to air: “HERE COME THE TRUMP TAX RETURNS!”
This morning’s headline, about 14 hours later:
You know it’s a bust when your own party is begging each other not to spend time on your scoop. Ed wrote this morning about the leading theory on social media, that the return might have been leaked by the Trump White House itself as some sort of psy op either to distract Americans from the health-care rollout or to prank the media by goosing their feverish suspicions about what might be in Trump’s taxes. That does seem plausible, if only because it’s hard to imagine why a Trump enemy would think he’d be damaged by two pages that show him paying taxes at a higher rate than most people in his class. It feels like a classic “limited hangout.” The return was even stamped “Client Copy,” in case people needed further evidence that it came from Team Trump. From Maddow’s perspective, though, there was really nothing to be done: When two pages from the president’s mysterious long-lost tax returns land in your lap, you have to take them to air and you have to do it immediately on the assumption that some rival media outlet received a copy too and will be publicizing the contents at any moment. (In fact, the Daily Beast posted a synopsis of the returns last night during Maddow’s show, before she’d even announced the details.) That’s where I disagree with Ed, who found the “rush to publicize” baffling given how little dirt there was in the returns. I think, at this point, intrigue surrounding the returns is so thick that any cable-news outlet (besides Fox, of course) would plaster them onscreen practically sight unseen, just to land a scoop that big. Maddow really had no choice but to put them on the air.
But why the ridiculous hype? You can understand her tweeting about the returns before the show in order to build buzz, but she’d surely read the return by then and must have known she had nothing damaging and that legions of liberals would be disappointed. To tamp down expectations while preserving the mystery, she could have specified that she had only two pages from the 1040 or that the return was “incomplete” or whatever. Instead, she and MSNBC went the extra mile to hype the revelation. She tweeted initially that she had “Trump tax returns” — plural — before clarifying later that all she had was the 2005 return. The first tweet has 83,000+ retweets as I write this on Wednesday morning; the clarification has 17,000. MSNBC then put a Maddow countdown clock onscreen during the 8 p.m. hour to boost the suspense before Maddow herself led off the program a long 15-minute shpiel about Trump without disclosing any details from the 1040, leading to even more suspense that she was building to something big and leaving journalists on Twitter tearing their hair out that she wasn’t leading with the news. After all that, by the time she finally got into the details of the 1040, it was Geraldo and the Al Capone vault all over again. Which brings us back to the question: Why? Why make viewers wait with bated breath for something you know can only disappoint them?
John Ziegler’s explanation is that hype is usually inversely proportional to actual news value. That is, it’s because Maddow knew she had nothing that she had to draw out the suspense. If there was anything truly juicy in the return, he reasons, don’t you think it would have been revealed by NBC’s hard news division, most likely Lester Holt’s program, instead of by Maddow during the 9 p.m. hour of liberal power? (I made the same point yesterday about Fox News and Andrew Napolitano’s claim that Obama used the GCHQ to access Trump’s communications.) All of that would make sense if Maddow was a sensationalist a la Geraldo 1986 bouncing from one eyeball-catching “scoop” to another, but her media niche is the opposite of that. Maddow’s fans idolize her as a smart liberal with a supposedly foolproof bullsh*t detector — yet here she was last night not only bullsh*tting them at length about the news value of the returns but quite possibly doing so as an unwitting pawn in a limited hangout by the Trump White House. She got suckered by someone, maybe the Republican president himself, which is something that should never, ever happen to MSNBC’s liberal eggheads. It’s sufficiently bad for her brand that it’s hard to imagine how she could have rationalized one night of mega-ratings as being worth the letdown and loss of faith in her judgment that she’d suffer among her regular fans. So I ask again: Why the ridiculous hype? I can’t figure it out.