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It was the tweet that nearly broke Twitter: “BREAKING: We've got Trump tax returns. Tonight, 9pm ET. MSNBC. (Seriously).” Rachel Maddow, host of the eponymous MSNBC show, tweeted again an hour later: “What we've got is from 2005... the President's 1040 form... details to come tonight 9PM ET, MSNBC.” In the moment, I felt a frisson of excitement: Had she uncovered evidence of the Russia connection that many of us believed was buried in the president's returns? Could it be something even more disturbing, lurid, devastating? Would it bring about the swift end to his presidency that I and roughly half the country wished for?
Even as I turned on my television at the appointed hour, part of me was skeptical. If Maddow had really found a smoking gun, wouldn’t NBC News have broken the story before her show? Deep down inside, I suspected I was being played. I just hoped I was wrong.
Had [Maddow] uncovered evidence of the Russia connection that many of us believed was buried in the president's returns? Could it be something even more disturbing, lurid, devastating? ...Sadly, no.
And then the show began. Maddow talked about the need for Trump to release his tax returns. About the kinds of illegalities his returns might elucidate. She talked. And talked. And talked. With each passing minute, as she rehashed the kind of speculation I’d been reading in print media since well before the election, my heart sank. Was it possible that there was nothing newsworthy in the two pages of the tax return journalist David Cay Johnston had shared exclusively with Maddow?
By the end of the show, it seemed clear that Maddow had sensationalized the story, gathering viewers with the suggestion – if not the outright promise – of a Trump tax bombshell, only to deliver a lecture on the need for a publicly disclosed, full return. Perhaps she felt that the end justified the means. If one more viewer decided to pressure Congress to get Trump to release his taxes, Maddow may have reasoned, the episode was worthwhile.
A number of my progressive friends seemed to agree. My social media feed filled with love letters to Maddow. And when I and others pointed out that there was no there there, that the spectacle was reminiscent of Geraldo Rivera’s televised Al Capone's vault fiasco in 1986, we were assured that Maddow's was all a well-calculated move designed to encourage others in possession of more damning tax information on Trump to come forward.
Inherent in all this is the suggestion that we progressives know there’s damning evidence hidden in Trump’s tax returns – ties to Russia, tax evasion, failing businesses – and that we simply have to find the information out there to corroborate our belief.
Sound familiar? Throughout the campaign, we on the left criticized Trump and his supporters for doing just that with Hillary Clinton. Insinuations of wrong-doing about everything from Clinton's use of a private email server to the foreign ties of the Clinton Foundation dogged her throughout the campaign. And the media didn't help. Consider this New York Times piece a case in point: The headline — "Donations to Foundation Vexed Hillary Clinton's Aides, Emails Show" -- and opening paragraphs suggest wrongdoing. It's only eight paragraphs in that we learn that Clinton's emails provide no evidence “to support Republican contentions that Mrs. Clinton performed any favors for foundation donors.” Might the outcome of the election have been different if that lack of evidence had been trumpeted in that headline and the hundreds like it in papers across the country? We’ll never know.
...President Trump...dismissed Maddow’s report as “fake news.” What disturbed me, in this instance, was that I felt hard pressed to disagree with him.
This time, the target is different, but the modus operandi is the same: Imply wrongdoing, then go in search of the evidence to prove it. It wasn't a good or fair strategy against Clinton, and it's not one now.
I’m not suggesting that Maddow’s tax return piece – whether long-game strategy or cynical ratings grab or both – rose to the same level of dishonesty and as, say, the conspiracy theory that Clinton operated a child sex ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria. My concern is that when we start with a narrative based on what we believe and look only for evidence corroborating that belief, we inevitably ignore facts that might prove otherwise. From there, it’s not a far slide downward into the murky arena of alternative facts.
Predictably, President Trump on Wednesday dismissed Maddow’s report as “fake news.” What disturbed me, in this instance, was that I felt hard pressed to disagree with him.