It didn’t take long for MSNBC and Rachel Maddow to go from hero to goat last night. Now some want to move them from goat to … victim? After spending all day hyping an exclusive on Donald Trump’s 2005 tax returns but delivering a prime-time “total nothingburger,” as Chris Cillizza put it at the Washington Post, some are speculating that Trump set up Maddow by leaking the tax returns himself:
Clearly the source of the "leaked" return is Trump himself. 10-20 missing pages w/ key info. This is to DISTRACT us from Russia, health care
— Michael Moore (@MMFlint) March 15, 2017
The man who got the pages over the mail, DC Report’s David Cay Johnston, suggested the same thing after the White House popped the balloon shortly before the show went on air:
[T]he journalist who obtained the document, David Cay Johnston, said in his interview with Maddow that the return was mailed to him anonymously and may have even come from Trump.
“It’s entirely possible that [Trump] sent this to me,” he said in his first comments, citing Trump’s habit of leaking things about himself. (The documents read “client copy” which adds to that idea.)
Is that possible? Sure, because Trump does have a reputation for pulling stunts like this. Just ask people who covered Trump in his pre-political, pre-reality-TV career, or easier yet, run a Google search on “John Miller” or “John Barron” with Trump’s name, supposed public-relations flacks that turned out to be Trump himself. Trump hasn’t exactly made his love-hate relationship with the media a secret, nor his efforts to manipulate them to his advantage. This tax-return release makes Trump look pretty good on the tax-return issue, and without having to cave to his opponents by releasing them himself. It doesn’t prove or even substantiate the allegation that Trump leaked this himself, though, and no one thought to suggest this before Maddow and MSNBC performed this epic face plant.
Of course, that’s precisely why media outlets shouldn’t rush everything that they get in the mail to print — or onto prime-time TV. First off, a journalist should check to make sure anonymously supplied documents are legitimate, let alone newsworthy, and that they’re not being manipulated into false or misleading reporting. It’s one thing to keep your sources anonymous to the public, when the reporter knows the sources and finds them reliable and have good reason to remain anonymous. It’s quite another to rely on single sources who won’t identify themselves to the reporter, and on top of that offer no provenance for the documents they supply. Nameless mail drops should be the start of an investigation, not the whole report.
In this case, that rush to publicize is doubly mystifying, because the clear content of the tax returns does nothing but help Trump. Democrats accused Trump of paying no taxes for almost 20 years, and that his business success was all a sham. Yet here in the middle of that period is proof that Trump paid a 25% tax rate on an reported annual 2005 income of $150 million — nifty proof that both narratives are false. Maddow and Johnston rushed this to air as if it were the Pentagon Papers, leading one to question whether they bothered to read the tax returns at all. If they did, did either of them understand what they were reading, and the context of paying an income rate rather than a capital-gains rate? From what transpired last night, the answer seems to be a yuuuuuuge No.
Finally, Geraldo Rivera can rest easy. Three decades after opening up Al Capone’s “vault” for two prime-time hours and finding nothing more than a few empty bottles of booze, another prime-time faceplant may have surpassed that epic embarrassment. Whether Trump leaked those documents himself or not, the only people to blame for that are Maddow, Johnston, and MSNBC.
Update: CNN’s also pursuing the Trump-fakes-out-reporters storyline this morning with Johnston. Does anyone realize this isn’t a good look for the media?