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Rachel Maddow during a taping of her show in New York on March 9, 2017. (An Rong Xu/NYT)
Rachel Maddow during a taping of her show in New York on March 9, 2017. (An Rong Xu/NYT)

BARRY HERTZ

Rachel Maddow’s explosive Trump tax report defused by cheap delays Add to ...

When in doubt, turn to The Simpsons. On Tuesday night, as hordes of anxious viewers around the world waited to see just what Rachel Maddow and her MSNBC producers had on U.S. President Donald Trump’s tax returns, one Simpsons quote kept popping up over and over in my social media feed.

It was from the brilliant 1997 episode called “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show,” in which the Simpson family and various Springfield citizens sit down to watch a cartoon cat and mouse’s much-anticipated journey to a fireworks factory – which ends up being constantly delayed thanks to the arrival of a dull new character named Poochie. The bait-and-switch moment causes the eternally impatient character Milhouse to wonder aloud, in between crying jags, “When are they going to get to the fireworks factory???”

Watching The Rachel Maddow Show, just an hour and a half after her Twitter account promised a bombshell revelation, I couldn’t help but sympathize with poor old Milhouse. When, exactly, was she going to get down to business? Instead of coming right out with any real revelations from Mr. Trump’s 2005 tax return – obtained thanks to widely respected tax journalist David Cay Johnston – Ms. Maddow and her producers teased, toyed and played their audience for a bunch of basic-cable rubes.

Related: Trump wrote off $100-million in business losses in 2005, tax forms show

Ms. Maddow began her show by breathlessly recounting the President’s justifications for never releasing his taxes, before seguing into chronicling his many other flaws – perhaps “flaws” is too small a word – from his history with Michael Flynn to his real-estate dealings to his firing of prosecutor Preet Bharara to what seemed like an abridged transcript from an upcoming Ken Burns documentary on the administration. Twenty minutes into what was promised to be a bombshell, and she was cutting to commercial, promising something on the actual tax return would come next. And then we were back. And then we were off to another commercial.

It was such a blatant case of ratings-bait that other outlets basically broke the story before Ms. Maddow had the chance to, with the Daily Beast publishing a story midway through MSNBC’s broadcast that Trump earned more than $150-million (all figures U.S.) in 2005, but paid a rate of less than 4 per cent of that in regular federal income tax (plus $31-million in what’s known as an “alternative minimum tax”). The White House itself delivered a punch to Ms. Maddow, too, sending the information to the Wall Street Journal before her broadcast.

Never mind the fact that what Ms. Maddow and Mr. Johnston (and, um, The Daily Beast and the Wall Street Journal and the White House) disclosed was indeed substantial – in fact, anything regarding Mr. Trump’s tax history would be substantial, so maddening was his refusal to release any of it before – what was truly aggravating, and will only further fan the flames of Mr. Trump’s crusade against the media, was MSNBC’s handling of the situation. It was exactly the wrong way to break news in this, 2017, our year of “Fake News.”

Ever since first plopping himself in the Oval Office, Mr. Trump has deftly taken charge of the “fake news” narrative that was originally employed against him. “Fake news” was at first what members of the media – liberal and otherwise – warned readers to steer clear of: completely fabricated, utterly partisan reports intended to sway gullible readers one way or the other during the 2016 election, often toward Mr. Trump and away from Hillary Clinton. Instead of swatting that accusation away, Mr. Trump and his Breitbart-backed brain trust came up with an evil-genius plan to instead use the term to bludgeon any legitimate news organization that dared question the administration’s behaviour, motives, history or general state of being.

The New York Times, the Associated Press, the Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC? Fake news mongers, all of them. All with an agenda to take down the White House, all with the means to generate false narratives and incite undue hatred against the loving, humble Mr. Trump. Naturally, that’s a patently absurd premise, but in the country that elected the former head of The Apprentice to the highest office in the land, the patently absurd is the new modus operandi of the land. Which all leads to just how MSNBC and Ms. Maddow, in an almost brilliant move of anti-strategy, likely ended up pushing more audiences toward Mr. Trump, instead of away.

Ms. Maddow, more often than not a whip-smart commentator and one of broadcast journalism’s best assets, had something legitimate, worthy and downright groundbreaking to say. But instead of giving the people what they want – which is essentially Mr. Trump’s first instinct – she played by the rules that have largely doomed cable news, using cheap delay tactics and the worst sort of preambled grandstanding. Mr. Trump could not have asked for a better execution of events.

If you were a fan of MSNBC before Tuesday night, you left The Rachel Maddow Show disappointed, even despondent over how the journalists there could have botched such an easy target. But if you already had no love for the “liberal elite” over at MSNBC, then Tuesday night just pushed you further to the fringe.

Ms. Maddow offered this thought close to the end of her show: “If somebody was able to release this report … I think it’s reasonable to expect there’s more out there, and that we will see more of this come out.”

Entirely possible, yes. But let’s just hope those potential, intrepid sources turn to someone other than Ms. Maddow and MSNBC. That trip to the fireworks factory isn’t going to take itself, after all.

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Follow on Twitter: @hertzbarry

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