As somebody who would like to see Donald Trump fulfill his promise and release his tax returns, I can’t help but view last night’s much-mocked MSNBC crazylogue as the mother of all counterproductive steps. For a moment, it seemed that Rachel Maddow was in possession of a genuine scoop. And then, all of a sudden, it didn’t. Not only was Maddow’s story a cringe-inducing bust, but it actually served the opposite effect than the one intended. Thanks to MSNBC, the suggestion that Trump has “paid no taxes in 18 years” has now been definitively proven to be false. Moreover, Trump seems to have paid a higher tax rate in 2005 than did most political figures, and to have enjoyed a sizeable income to boot. Whether the report was cherry-picked we cannot possibly know. But on the basis of what was presented last night, the president looks both pretty accomplished and perfectly law-abiding. What, one wonders, did Maddow think she was achieving?
In isolation, the incident was extremely amusing; not since Geraldo opened the vault have the squibs been rendered so damp. In context, however, Maddow’s folly tells us something important about the way in which many in the press have been going about their business of late. Judging by the reactions during the lead-up to the reveal, an awful lot of Americans seem to be hoping that a “magic bullet” will bring down this president in a flash. Perhaps it will be in his tax returns? Perhaps it’ll be on a server somewhere? Perhaps the bureaucracy will uncover it and then leak? And, judging by the media’s behavior, the men in suits know this. In a more sober environment, Maddow’s “scoop” would have presented as one small piece of a larger puzzle. Instead, it was trailed as if it might be Watergate. And why wouldn’t it be? Millions of people are looking for a one-hit wonder. So up to eleven go the dials.
We hear a great deal at the moment about the “delegitimization” of the press. But what is more likely to achieve that than a habitual overselling of every tidbit of information? Rare is the war that is won by a single atomic bomb; numerous are the victors who took each village along the march. If there is a debilitating scandal at the root of the Trump empire, it will be exposed piecemeal, not in one fell swoop. If the case against the president is that he is unfit for office, the brief must be advanced line by line. As a disinterested observer, I cackled last night at the hallucinatory nature of the editorial I was being sold. But as an avid consumer of the news, I sighed wearily and without joy, as yet another impatient traveler picked the incorrect option at the ubiquitous fork in the road.