The Columbia Journalism Review sizes up Rachel Maddow’s big (or not) night

A lengthy excerpt here from this morning’s “The Media Today” newsletter, which is published by the Columbia Journalism Review:

A media frenzy began with a single tweet, and for once it didn’t come from the president. Last night, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow set the political media spinning with a 7:36 post: “BREAKING: We’ve got Trump tax returns. Tonight, 9pm ET. MSNBC. (Seriously).” As speculation kicked into overdrive and MSNBC added a countdown clock to its broadcast, Maddow clarified that her information came from a 2005 return.

The scoop Maddow referenced belonged to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and longtime Trump chronicler David Cay Johnston, who had received two pages of the president’s 2005 taxes “over the transom.” The documents showed that Trump wrote off more than $100 million in business losses, and paid an effective tax rate of 25 percent on reported earnings of $150 million. But MSNBC viewers wouldn’t learn that information until almost two hours after Maddow’s initial tweet.

After what felt like an interminable wait, Maddow began her show with a customary monologue, providing background on Trump’s refusal to release his taxes and telling viewers why they should care. The soliloquy dragged for 20 minutes, through the first commercial break, without any documents being produced, frustrating many viewers. “If you have news, Rachel, please tell us. Soon,” ESPN’s Bob Ley tweeted. “I’m not young.”

By the time Maddow brought Johnston on camera to reveal what he had, she’d been scooped. The White House had released a pre-emptive statement summarizing Trump’s 2005 return, and The Daily Beast, along with other outlets, had posted stories. After the teasing buildup, magnified by a media culture conditioned for speed, the execution felt botched. New York magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi criticized Maddow’s “annoying windup” which allowed for “irresponsible and unhelpful speculation.”

There are layers to the story coming out of last night’s events. First and foremost, the hysteria surrounding Maddow’s initial tweet reminds us that there exists intense interest in digging deeper into the financial entanglements of a businessman president who has refused to follow precedent in releasing his taxes. But from a media perspective, there was also a lesson in presentation. Overselling a story, as Maddow did with her vague statement, doesn’t help journalists build trust with an audience already wary of them. When Maddow cut to commercial without presenting the tax returns, CJR Editor and Publisher Kyle Pope tweeted, “As fodder for America’s press haters, this is a gift.”

Below, some context on the story and the reaction to it:

  • You can read Johnston’s own reporting of the story here.

  • Rachel Maddow had a big scoop, and she handled it her way,” writes The New York Times’s Michael Grynbaum.

  • Poynter’s Ben Mullin called Maddow’s long-winded introduction “a cautionary tale about the dangers of being scooped in an age where the news cycle is measured 140 characters at a time.”

  • CNN’s Dylan Byers said the story, disappointed “many in the political-media establishment with a report that was widely characterized as overhyped.”

  • Johnston received the documents in a similar fashion to the way The New York Times’s Susanne Craig discovered a bombshell Trump taxes story waiting in her mailbox.

  • For those wondering about the legality of publishing Trump’s taxes, CJR’s press freedom correspondent Jonathan Peters clarified, “it is NOT illegal to publish tax returns as long as publisher didn’t unlawfully acquire them or help someone who did.”

If you missed my reaction to what unfolded last night, you can read it here.

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