The tweets and Facebook posts were coming fast and furious last Wednesday evening following publicity from The Rachel Maddow Show that Donald Trump’s tax returns were on Rachel’s desk. Thus ensued a short discussion in our news saturated household: Trump’s taxes, or find out #WhoKilledWes? Entertainment choices clearly ranged from bad to worse. We eschewed Maddow, but the reveal on Wes’s killer took us down another rabbit hole, one that resulted in a mutual vow never to watch How To Get Away With Murder again, no matter how much Viola Davis cries.
It seems that those who chose to watch Maddow may have felt the same way.
As it turned out, Rachel had two 1040 summary pages from Trump’s 2005 return, via journalist David Cay Johnston of DCreport.org, who had received them anonymously (morning speculation is that they were deliberately leaked by the Trump team.) The forms, which can be found here, show that Mr. Icky Prez shelled out $36.6 million, while sister channel CNBC, which included self-employment income, pegs that number at “$38 million in taxes on income of more than $150 million for 2005.” The White House revealed those numbers shortly before the show aired, thus ruining Rachel’s big reveal (think Charlie Brown and the football, with Steve Breitbart as Lucy.) Unfortunately, there were no Post-Its attached to the forms that said, for example, “Why didn’t you deduct more of my expenses from entertaining Russian bankers? DJT” or “So glad we could take a loss on the casino I bankrupted! Love, Daddy.”
Viewers and journalists alike complained that Maddow made them wait for a big reveal that didn’t pay off, which makes you wonder if they have ever watched this show before. As Michael Grynbaum of The New York Times wrote, teasing viewers and journalists in the age of news-as-entertainment backfired. Maddow had alerted her audience with a 7:36 tweet but, as Grynbaum notes,
In the need-it-this-instant world of online news, 84 minutes struck some journalists as an awfully long time to wait. The White House took advantage, releasing a pre-emptive statement that detailed Mr. Trump’s tax figures from 2005 before MSNBC had a chance to air its own report. The Daily Beast and other news outlets ran items as well.
Ms. Maddow, who is enjoying the biggest viewership of her show’s nine-year run, did not appear to mind. She opened her program on Tuesday as she usually does: with a deliberately paced, fact-heavy monologue, in this case reviewing Mr. Trump’s past refusal to release his taxes to catch up viewers on why this new revelation mattered.
The revelation itself, however, was held back until after the first commercial break, a windup that some fellow journalists, eager for any bombshells, found exceedingly lengthy.
We need to reflect on what has come to count as a news “bombshell” in the Age of Trump. The answer seems to be: any factoid, no matter how small, that re-ignites the partisan prejudices of the crowd.
Journalists are playing a dangerous game when they hype trivial crap — Nordstrom canceling Ivanka’s fashion line is another good example, as are virtually all Presidential tweets — as a whole story. Such things are actually pieces of a story, facts that need to be hoarded until they fit together into a big story of greater national importance. One possible response to Trump’s 2005 tax returns might be: Well, at least the guy paid something. A second is to point out, as Grynbaum’s colleagues Peter Baker and Jesse Drucker did, that in 2005 Trump wrote off $100 million in business losses. In my view, this makes him either look like a crook or not such a good businessman, since he wrote off almost a billion dollars in the late twentieth century. Of “the vast bulk of the federal income taxes he paid in 2005, $31 million, was paid under the alternative minimum tax, which Mr. Trump wants to abolish,” Baker and Drucker write. Takeaway? Trump is a greedy, venal bastard whose business interests align with the rest of the 1%. (By the way: can you imagine living a life where you can afford to lose $100 million, and still aford to pay a $38 million tax bill? And then having the genius to sell yourself as the champion of the poor? Now that’s a story.)
But we knew that, and that’s the problem.
When details of the big picture are being released on a news-as-it-happens basis, details that only serve to confirm what we already think (“Trump is a crook!” “Trump is the object of a deep state conspiracy!”) the chances that we will actually get to a big story that conclusively prove deception, criminality, or a genuine conspiracy are dim, as each piece of evidence falls on the jaded ears of an increasingly cynical audience that may cease to care about the big story.
I’m a fan of Rachel Maddow’s, but part of why I thought (mistakenly, as it turns out) I might get more out of finding out #Who KilledWes is that Maddow’s habit of making herself the story, which is more or less what she does by hyping “news” that confirms what we already know, has started to wear me out. I can never tell when I am going to learn something new from one of her shows, and when it is just going to turn into an endless feedback loop of Rachel being Rachel. Sometimes her lead story is preceded by so much roundabout inference, mugging to the camera, and sarcasm, much of which is filled with reassurances that what I am watching is “a big deal” and “really important,” that for a good twenty minutes I can’t tell where she is going or why it matters. My time is important, and I become increasingly resentful when the payoff is delayed so long that I have seen the same pharmaceutical ad three times.
Hyping a big reveal that turns out to be less than informative is a central feature of contemporary click bait news. The genre is the same, whether the delivery vehicle bends right or left, whether the host is an MSNBC feminist or a raging Fox mysogynist. Trump’s tax returns (and the Paul Ryan tape posted to Breitbart earlier in the day, which “revealed” the Speaker’s pre-election dismay about the Trump candidacy) increasingly confuse the public about what news is and why it matters. Worse, it distracts from the political issues at hand, such as:
- A GOP healthcare bill that seems designed to reduce dramatically the numbers of Americans with insurance, raise prices, and reduce the quality of care;
- A looming deadline set by Congress that the Justice Department illuminate 45’s charges that he was illegally surveilled by 44, which the FBI has denied. Justice has asked for an extension on a matter that would seemingly be a matter of record;
- The Trump administration’s ghost ship of a government, where Cabinet secretaries don’t have assistants and deputies, and over 1,100 jobs requiring Senate confirmatioon remain unfilled. This question has a subhead: is this part of a planned “deconstruction of the American state,” as presidential advisor Steve Bannon put it, presumablly following Lacan? Or is it just total incompetence?
- The president’s proposed budget, which slashes the arts, sciences, social welfare services, foreign aid, and government administration in order to build a wall on the Mexican border and add over $50 billion to military spending?
By comparison, two pages of tax returns from 2005 was a waste of time to report. If they matter, they belong in a much bigger, better researched story — the kind that takes months to prepare, verify and write. Until then, Trump’s tax returns are just — clickbait.
Claire Potter is Professor of History at The New School and Executive Editor of Public Seminar. You can follow her on Twitter @TenuredRadical.
Note: this story was updated on March 20 2017 to include a link to the original story and tax documents posted by David Cay Johnston prior to the Maddow show, and the discrepancy between the amount of taxes listed on the 2005 1040 form and the sum cited by CNBC.