Maddow, Trump’s Taxes & Investigative Journalism

Rachel Maddow, Trump's 2005 tax returns and investigative reporting

Following Rachel Maddow’s well-watched ‘tax return’ reveal show earlier this week, many on both sides of the aisle have criticized the narrative-based MSNBC journalist for “over-hyping” a non-story. Those who’ve tuned into Maddow’s investigative reporting over the last several weeks tend to disagree.

Here’s why.

Much like Watergate, the investigation into Trump’s various conflicts of interest, ties with Russia, and other potentially impeachable offenses won’t be broken as a single blockbuster story. Rather, as facts and details come to light – whether through leaks, anonymously mailed tax returns or otherwise – bits and pieces of that larger story will come together. That’s how investigative journalism works.

But that’s getting ahead of the problem with how people are reacting.

When she initially announced she had Trump’s tax returns, Maddow tweeted at 7:36 PM ET (just under an hour and a half before her show that evening), “BREAKING: We’ve got Trump tax returns. Tonight, 9pm ET. MSNBC. (Seriously).” Immediately people jumped to conclusions and began assuming she had the blockbuster story of the year that would take down Trump.

Maddow is not a breaking news reporter; she is an Oxford-educated Rhodes Scholar who works as an investigative journalist. Had this been a “breaking news” impeachable offense sort of situation, someone else at MSNBC inevitably would have reported on this before her 9 PM time slot. That this news waited until her time slot should have been everyone’s first clue.

Alas, the internet “over-hyped” the news and forced Maddow to clarify what she would be reporting on under an hour later at 8:24 PM ET. “What we’ve got is from 2005… the President’s 1040 form… details to come tonight 9PM ET, MSNBC,” she said.

Six minutes later, the White House confirmed what Maddow would be reporting in an attempt to get out in front of the story.

This should have been the end of everyone’s heightened expectations. (It wasn’t.)

As she does in literally every episode of her show, Rachel Maddow spent her A-Block (around the first 15-20 minutes of each episode) providing context and background on why it’s important America sees Trump’s tax returns. This is par for the course as Maddow literally does this every night of the week she is on the air.

Though some don’t care for this narrative-style reporting, it can’t be disputed that Maddow ensures people understand the gravity and context of anything she reports on whether from a historical or a current events perspective. She goes to great lengths to vet her reporting and when she makes mistakes, she owns up to them.

That’s why – after her A-Block – Maddow brought in Pulitzer Prize-winning tax expert David Cay Johnston (who originally received the 2005 tax return in the mail) to discuss the tax return’s implications in addition to its facts. She presented no smoking gun or incriminating evidence. She provided new information and added that information to the larger story she’s been reporting on for several weeks.

This only came as a surprise to people who either (1) do not watch her show regularly and/or (2) people who misunderstand how investigative reporting actually works.

Maxwell Strachan commented on this in an article published at the Huffington Post yesterday. He said in part:

Together, Maddow’s long-winded windup and the fact that the returns included no startling revelations led to anger. At least some of that outrage is misplaced.

No, the returns did not blow the lid off of the Trump administration. But if Johnston had brought the returns to The New York Times, or the Washington Post, or even The Huffington Post, it’s hard to believe that any one of the outlets would have decided against publishing them.

So, Maddow and her team did what a responsible journalist should do: She reported on the information with necessary skepticism, even discussing Johnston’s theory that Trump might behind the leak himself in an attempt to quiet the conversation come tax day.

That people chose to pay attention to Maddow’s first tweet and ignore her second one speaks not to Maddow’s competency as a journalist so much as people’s need for instant gratification and disappointment when that need isn’t fulfilled. Actor and former White House Associate Director of Public Engagement Kal Penn embodied this concept as he tweeted during Maddow’s A-Block saying, “This is boring. Is there a story here or nah? hurry up @MSNBC.”

Maddow touched on this imagined “breaking news” controversy speaking with AP the day following her show:

Rachel Maddow says that if people felt let down by her story about President Donald Trump’s 2005 tax document it’s more because of the weight of expectation than anything she did.

Maddow told the AP that she never misrepresented what she had.

“Because I have information about the president doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily a scandal,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that it’s damning information. If other people leapt to that conclusion without me indicating that it was, that hype is external to what we did.”

“My priority is to get the story right and put it into proper context, and explain the weight of it and why it is important,” Maddow told the Associated Press. “This is a super interesting first window into his finances, and the question of his finances is a legitimate scandal.”

Commenting on criticism saying she “helped” Trump, Maddow said, “It is funny to me that a president would spend this much energy and political capital to keep secret his finances and his taxes specifically and simultaneously would want to brag about how much money he made. If that’s really what he wants the story to be, he can release all of his taxes and we can all glory in his immense wealth.”

And that’s the entire point.

The episode wasn’t just about Trump’s 2005 1040 tax forms. For sure, it’s important that information is in the public’s view (as all of his taxes should be). Maddow repeatedly pointed this out as she analyzed the tax return that evening, in fact.

The New York Times elaborated on Maddow’s general format and strategy discussing the tax return reveal:

The wait, about 20 minutes in all, may have irked political reporters, but it was of a piece with the strategy Ms. Maddow has laid out for herself and her staff. In an interview last week, she described “a real sense of responsibility” to educate her 2.6 million-strong audience, particularly those who may be casual consumers of the news.

“There’s new people here every night,” Ms. Maddow said in her NBC office in New York. “I don’t feel like I’m doing a clubhouse update. I don’t feel like I’ve got a choir that was here at last night’s practice too. I definitely feel like, hey, if you’re new, let me meet you where you are.”

They added:

On Twitter, journalists complained that Ms. Maddow had overhyped her findings with the initial teasing tweet, noting that the information in the returns did not amount to a scandal. Others asked why so much of the focus was on Ms. Maddow and not the subject at hand. “The President of the United States has not released his tax returns,” wrote Peter Hamby, a journalist at Snapchat who previously worked for CNN. “Journalists are attacking Maddow for using her show to discuss this.”

At the heart of the discussion in how Maddow approached and executed the reveal of Trump’s 2005 taxes, one thing is clear: the story (in Maddow’s mind) was the larger picture whereas everyone else assumed the story would be the taxes themselves.

That’s why Maddow spent the better part of 20 minutes rehashing her previous reporting on Trump’s sources of income, potential Russia ties, his international financial “coincidences” and more.

“We can’t know any of that without getting his tax returns,” Maddow explained during the tax reveal. “That’s why presidents release their tax returns. That’s why there will continue to be unrelenting pressure to find Donald Trump’s tax returns, to expose Donald Trump’s tax returns.”

Summarizing the importance of the release of the tax form over its contents, Maddow added, “And that pressure will remain every single day that he remains as president ― unless and until he releases them, the pressure will never let up.”

Writing for The Mary Sue, Vivian Kane made a point of highlighting everyone’s rush to criticize Maddow over their own self-heightened expectations. She explained:

Many viewed this as Maddow getting scooped by the White House, which is ludicrous. Why not view it as what really happened: Rachel Maddow got the White House to finally release more information on Trump’s taxes than we’d seen up to this point. Even more, she essentially got them to confirm that this document is accurate! Johnston’s anonymous source–that mainstay of “fake news” as Trump keeps saying–was solid.

The numbers in the tax return aren’t all that interesting. Maybe we were hoping they would be, but they’re not. But all those critics who were let down by the program already knew that. So the White House releasing them first isn’t stealing her thunder. Because there’s still so much there that is interesting, and incredibly important. And if those critics had listened to her “boring” opening segment, they would have heard her take 20 minutes to go over everything that is very much worth paying attention to.

For starters, as far as those numbers go, it is worth noting that while Trump paid $38 million in taxes on $150 million of income, if it weren’t for the “alternative minimum tax,” designed to keep corporations and wealthy taxpayers from finding loopholes and exemptions in their tax payments, Trump only would have paid a 4% tax rate. And wouldn’t you know it, Trump wants to get rid of the alternative minimum tax. It’s essential for us to know if is his tax policies are designed to benefit him, or his business ties and benefactors, more than the vast majority of American taxpayers.

She then referenced Tuesday night’s show where Maddow said:

If there are inexplicable dumps of foreign money into the President’s coffers that cannot be explained in normal business terms, that’s potentially a huge problem for somebody who’s serving as President of the United States.

The interest in Trump’s tax returns is not a partisan thing. If people, if interests have inexplicably given him a lot of money in recent years, why did they do it? What do they want for that money now? Is the President in a position where we need to watch to make sure he is not paying off his past benefactors with our country’s resources, with U.S. policy, with decisions he can make as President? That’s part of why we need to see his tax returns.

Kane concluded:

Trump can release his tax returns at any time. The release of this document proves that. And he needs to release them, to clear up any suspicion around those questions Maddow just asked. This isn’t just the press who cares, this isn’t just liberals who care. Why would Trump not release this information, unless he doesn’t want the American people to know the answers to those questions.

But sure, let’s ignore all of that because the news was too hyped or talky or whatever.

The entire point of investigative journalism is spending weeks, months if not years digging deep into a story and rooting out the facts. Sometimes those facts alter public perception; sometimes they merely add a piece to the larger puzzle.

Reporting on the release of Trump’s 2005 1040 presented no scandal; but that’s never what the story was about. Anyone who believed that came to the conclusion on their own. As she always does, Rachel Maddow and her staff received a piece of a larger Trumpian puzzle and presented it with context and expert analysis from both a Pulitzer Prize winning tax expert as well as a renowned historian.

Maddow said it succinctly last night appearing on the Tonight Show. “It’s a national security concern,” she said of Trump’s ongoing refusal to voluntarily release his taxes. “Show us the tax returns, so we can stop freaking out about them.”

Referring to her (as well as other journalists’) ongoing investigation into his taxes, Maddow added, “Honestly it feels like a big responsibility. I want to be trustworthy to my audience.

“I take it seriously, we’re going to get this thing figured out piece by piece by piece.”

Because that’s how investigative journalism – which does not cater to sensationalism – works.

Tim Peacock is the Managing Editor and founder of Peacock Panache and has worked as a civil rights advocate for over twenty years. During that time he’s worn several hats including leading on campus LGBT advocacy in the University of Missouri campus system, interning with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, and volunteering at advocacy organizations. You can learn more about him at his personal website.

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