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The Night That Rachel Maddow Let Me Down

By Seth Freilich | Politics | March 15, 2017 |

By Seth Freilich | Politics | March 15, 2017 |

Last night, a little over an hour before The Maddow Show would have its nightly live airing, Rachel Maddow or someone from her show sent out this tweet:

BREAKING: We've got Trump tax returns. Tonight, 9pm ET. MSNBC.


— Rachel Maddow MSNBC (@maddow) March 14, 2017

You likely saw it because it quickly went massively viral. I was excited. Friends asked if this was a ratings hype and I said I doubted it, because Maddow doesn’t tend to lean into that sorta thing.

Except last night she did. And so did the whole MSNBC network. And it was gross.

There are stories here. There’s a story in the mere fact that her team acquired two pages of the President’s* tax return from 12 years ago. There’s a story here about how taxes impact the obscenely rich and how the Republicans’ proposed tax revisions would help people like Trump but not people like us. There’s a story here about how these basic numbers of what Trump earned and paid in taxes in 2005 suggest that his decades of claims about his wealth are a bit rough around the edges, if not flat-out lies. There’s a story here about how this is a small first piece of the bigger puzzle of his finances. And, as Maddow said later in the show, “the story here is that A we acquired these forms and B it means this type of information can be obtained.” In other words, as to that second point, there is a story here about how this information, which the President* has obstinately refused to disclose, may be obtainable through other means. But it’s that first part, that the story is that “we acquired these forms” - that’s not a story, and the way they hyped it up for ratings is disappointing.

Let me back up for a second. I want to be clear that I absolutely ADORE Rachel Maddow and her show. I watch every night or listen the following morning via podcast. I’ve loved the show for years but, in the last month, she has been doing phenomenal work on the web of ties between this administration and Russia. It’s good, important work, and if this story ever ends with a “there” being there, it’s not hyperbole to suggest that she’s doing Pulitzer-level work.

But this story wasn’t at that level. This was a one-segment story, not the better part of an hour story, with full pre-airing hype and post-airing … I don’t even know what to call it. People online have said that it’s not fair to accuse Maddow or MSNBC of hyping this because it was “just one tweet.” But instead of that broad tweet, they could’ve tweeted “We’ve got the two page 1040 form from Trump’s 2005 tax return.” That’s truthful and not creating false hype. And these guys aren’t dummies, they knew exactly what that tweet would do, versus the tweet they did send. One is small, the other will blow up and drive viewers. …drive viewers to watch an hour of almost nothing. She gave a great recap in her first segment of some of the work she’s been doing over the last month. And then the rest of the show was about how this 1040 shows us almost nothing, because all the meat of taxes live on the schedules. Schedules she doesn’t have.

And then, she turned it over to Lawrence O’Donnell for his show and where he surprisingly invited her to be a guest of his because this was such a huge story. And it was gross theater to watch because they had announced over an hour earlier that she was now a planned guest. And then they both self-congratulated themselves for this … thing … which was nothing. A friend said I should watch because Maddow did a good job of defending the import of this story, but that’s not what I saw. I saw more of the same.

I also saw folks online talking about how you have to take this in context. And I totally agree. As I said above, there are a lot of stories you can spin off of this. But this isn’t a smoking bullet, this isn’t even a bullet, it’s just a small story in a greater possible story. That’s the context.

And speaking of bullets, this is disappointing for two reasons. On the one hand, it’s disappointing just because I expect more of Rachel, I expect better from her. But whatever with that. The broader disappointment is because this gives the other side a bullet. If and when Maddow breaks something legitimately big, they’ll already go after her for openly liberal leanings, while their alt-right Nazi attack dogs will grossly go after her gender and sexuality. But this gives them something else. “She’s just a ratings whore who pulls stunts to get eyeballs just like Seriously Fake News CNN. Remember when she hyped up having a decades-old tax return that just showed how successful the President* was as a business man? This is more of the same - there’s nothing here, she just wants ratings, etc.” There are those of us who will see this argument for the bullshit that it is. But there are still a lot of people who are buying this Administration’s garbage talk, especially when it comes to the media attacks, and this will play right into that, and serve to chip away, even if just a little, at some of Maddow’s perceived credibility.

Look, maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe the people who see this as a ding on her credibility are people who wouldn’t have bought into her reporting already, because of partisan bias and a million other reasons. But I don’t think so, because I have friends who are lukewarm on her or lump her in with all the rest of the ratings-chasing media and one of them flat-out told me this just shows that she’s like all the rest. Which pains me, because I don’t think she is.

And that’s why, beyond the broader impact of this, I just feel let down. Because I adore this show so much, I hold it to a higher standard. I expect The Rachel Maddow Show to be above CNN-type ratings grabs. But last night, that’s exactly what they stooped to.