As the world watches, Rachel Maddow slow-plays Trump tax return scoop

NBC coined the slogan "Must-See TV" more than two decades ago; tonight, MSNBC invented "hurry-up-and-wait" TV.

In an excruciatingly delayed primetime media extravaganza that was reminiscent of Geraldo Rivera's slow-as-molasses unveiling of Al Capone’s vault in 1986, Rachel Maddow used her show Tuesday night to release a portion of President Trump's tax returns from 2005.

In doing so, the broadcast became a cautionary tale about the dangers of being scooped in an age where the news cycle is measured 140 characters at a time and precious seconds can mean the difference between owning a story and playing follow-the-leader.

More than an hour before she went on her show Tuesday evening, Maddow tweeted a scoop — she had Trump's tax returns, and her audience would have to wait until 9 p.m. to see them.

https://twitter.com/maddow/status/841795163664089089

The tweet shot into the Twittersphere like a rocket, quickly becoming Maddow's most-retweeted. It touched off a speculation-fest among journalists and others who wondered about the scope of her scoop — did she have Trump's latest tax returns, which would provide a window onto his recent financial dealings? Did she have multiple years? Or was it a more dated filing that would provide a somewhat antiquated assessment?

And why, her followers wondered, would she wait an hour before publishing them?

https://twitter.com/lpolgreen/status/841796325490491393

A partial answer came from Chris Hayes, Maddow's 8 p.m. lead-in. After Maddow's tweet, MSNBC put a CNN-like countdown clock at the bottom-right corner of the chyron beneath Hayes' show. As the minutes counted down, Hayes grilled Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and plugged his book tour before getting to the story at hand.

"You've seen the box in the lower corner of this show," Hayes said, referencing the clock. He noted that story was garnering attention on social media, building anticipation for the story — and presumably Maddow's Tuesday night ratings — to a crescendo.

Then, he threw it to Maddow, who quickly described the scope of her scoop. It was a partial tax return from 2005, which does not contain revelations regarding Trump's most recent finances. It came via David Cay Johnston, a columnist for The Daily Beast who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for his explaining how wealthy Americans take advantage of the U.S. tax code. Johnston said he got the returns from an anonymous source who dropped the documents into his mailbox.

But before diving into the details, Maddow spent several minutes explaining the context for the story: How Trump's decision to withhold Trump's tax returns is unprecedented among modern presidents; the fact that there are still big questions left unanswered about Trump's finances; why his Republican supporters have publicly urged him to release his taxes but voted against disclosure.

After more than an hour of teasing, Maddow left the meat of the story for the second block of her show, which caused no shortage of consternation among viewers at home.

https://twitter.com/jswatz/status/841828878435905536

https://twitter.com/SalHernandez/status/841820527316496384

"I am sure it is only the start," Maddow said before she threw to a commercial. "But it's a start. And our little piece of it — we'll go through it, next."

Before Maddow's broadcast ended, the tax returns were already widely available: The New York Times, BuzzFeed, The Washington Post and others had separate stories on the returns, which were distributed by the White House as Maddow was breaking the story. For its part, the White House issued a statement accusing Maddow of being motivated primarily by ratings and saying that it's "illegal to steal and publish tax returns."

"The dishonest media can continue to make this part of their agenda, while the president will focus on his, which includes tax reform that will benefit all americans," the statement read, in part. The statement also said (incorrectly) that it's illegal to publish tax returns.

But there was one place the tax returns weren't available. As the broadcast ended, Maddow urged viewers to check out the documents on her website before being informed that it was temporarily out-of-service.

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    Benjamin Mullin

    Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism innovation, business practices and ethics.

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