Rachel Maddow and the Problem with Broadcast Media

At 7:36 p.m. Tuesday, Rachel Maddow tweeted that she had come across the holy grail for reporters: the elusive tax returns of President Donald Trump. Tune into her show an hour and a half later and witness one of TV’s feistiest females eviscerate these highly-illegal tax returns.

At 9 p.m., millions turned on MSNBC and witnessed a Rachel Maddow far less confident than her tweet suggested. The normally blazing and confrontational Maddow seemed more subdued. After spending over half an hour reminding the public that the president had yet to release any such tax returns and that these returns were delivered anonymously to a well-respected journalist, Maddow promised a full analysis--after a commercial break. Another three minutes of commercials passed. Maddow again reiterated these tax returns from 2005 were the only ones released by President Trump thus far. Then, she proceeded to read verbatim the numbers from the 1040.

That was it. No further analysis. The numbers, when read off the page, felt almost normal or exactly what people expected from any average tax return.  

Then Maddow invited Pulitzer-prize winning journalist David Cay Johnston to the discussion of how exactly he found the information. Johnston, a former tax reporter for the New York Times, went on several tangents explaining some rather bizarre theories regarding exactly how these documents wound up in his mailbox. 

NBC News’s Hallie Johnson gave the only decent analysis to the findings of the decade-old form, but by that point, the public’s interest was lost. Rachel Maddow had promised the biggest break thus far. However, as the audience watched her stretch the ordeal out to fill her time slot, it appeared as though the story wasn't so much a blistering exposé as it was an attempt to keep Maddow in the ratings game.

Had Maddow truly been interested solely in the 1040’s contents and not on analysis, wouldn’t she have shared it immediately? Doesn’t responsible journalism require that breaking news first be evaluated before being shared with the public?

By the time Maddow’s show aired, it was clear to print news consumers that Maddow’s thunder had been stolen. Those that read already-published articles regarding the 1040 knew Maddow had little material to discuss as they flipped on MSNBC.

What happened on Rachel Maddow’s show is a microcosm of the larger problems inherent in nearly all television news. Maddow’s tax return flop might finally expose some of the biggest issues with television news delivery, and it could offer some learning tools for the public as well as journalists.

page 1 of 2, shared by Maddow in her segment

page 1 of 2, shared by Maddow in her segment

One of the biggest disappointments for journalists watching Maddow’s tax reveal is that she never contextualized the data; she just spoke the numbers typed onto the 1040, perhaps in the hopes that the absurdly large amount would distract an audience predisposed to being anti-Trump from the fact that she had nothing substantial to say about it. So President Trump paid $35 million in taxes with a $150 million net profit margin. What does that proportion mean in comparison to the average man? What does that look like when juxtaposed with other politicians and billionaires? Maddow and her team barely even mentioned that these numbers were from 2005, which means that she missed an opportunity to ask questions about the years between now and then or to compare them to Trump's actual business dealings that same year.

Why did she rob viewers of any sort of analysis? It’s not because of MSNBC’s "anti-Trump, libtard snowflake agenda." It don't believe it's because Maddow wanted to hide something benign on air. Rather, television news simply does not foster actual data analysis. Rarely do news shows bother with breaking down the numbers involved in a story. The points that sell good television news are the same things that sell popular entertainment shows: a captivating story, an emotional pull, and excellent visuals. Those three aspects propelled television news into prominence in the first place. Visual coverage of the Vietnam War put color on the battlefield, put stories with the blanket numbers reported by newspapers, and allowed millions to feel as if they too waded through the quagmire of war. Numbers rarely play a part in that compelling dynamic.

This isn’t to say numbers can’t be contextualized well on TV news. Programs like HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver do this with exceptional ease. However, those shows dedicate 20 to 30 minutes on a singular talking point, because that kind of time is necessary to appropriately share a piece of data, rather than whittling it to a headline that can be grabbed by the audience predisposed to loving--or hating--the information it seems to convey. Most TV and cable news networks have at most a minute and a half to capture viewership and present the information. Maddow had 11 minutes, but she had two other interviews to conduct on live broadcasting--a time-consuming task for any media personality.

Broadcast media has long prioritized breaking news over factual accuracy. This is in part why newscasts will label a story as “breaking” or “developing," rather than wait to see its fully-developed form. The fact remains that television news needs viewership to remain funded and relevant; actual journalism is left for the next-day analysis in newspapers. Reports struggle with the balance of uncovering fresh details while simultaneously making the new information digestible and attractive to viewers. If the news presented isn’t fresh, viewers won’t continue watching. If another station gets an earlier scoop, people won't watch your coverage of it. If viewers tune out or never come to you in the first place, the station loses advertising revenue. Less revenue ultimately leads to fewer reporters, and the cycle could theoretically continue.

What's interesting is that despite the lack of real content, Maddow’s program bested Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly and Tucker Carlson for the most viewers aged 25 to 54, according to Poynter. How did that happen? It's because Maddow is a skilled television news reporter, and she employed age-old tactics to keep viewership engaged. We see the exact same things done during "Sweep" weeks.

A nielsen box, used for capturing a family's viewing habits to determine ratings during sweeps weeks.

A nielsen box, used for capturing a family's viewing habits to determine ratings during sweeps weeks.

“Sweeps” refers to the two times each year when ratings separate the 'top dogs' from the ‘weaker’ stations. The Nielsen Company--the firm responsible for gauging audience size, charting demographics, and providing the research that plays into how well a station is funded--intensifies its market research. During these weeks, all television news channels from local to national will, for lack of a better term, pimp their news. Seriously. Have you ever watched your local news channels to find that they’re all advertising this “exclusive” multi-part package around the same time of year? Their reporters haven’t stumbled upon separate and spectacular news subjects. No, they’ve been working on these packages for months in order to sell viewers on a complex problem that will hold interest for at least five separate 3-minute segments. If that local news station can capture a viewer for that time without them switching to another news bit, it’s enough to boost that station’s ratings and give them a gold star at the end of sweeps week.

During sweeps weeks, the aesthetics of broadcasting overshadow real journalism and even the best reporters find themselves dipping their toes into sensationalist headlines and ledes. They'll tease an attention-grabbing segment and save it for after a commercial break--the news version of a cliffhanger in a two-part Macguyver episode. Rachel Maddow isn’t a dumb woman. She’s a highly educated and brilliant reporter. Those characteristics garnered her a show. But her Trump Tax-Release story clearly exposed what happens when broadcasts prioritize ratings over information. They sacrifice actual reporting for increased viewership.

Rachel Maddow tweeting out that she held the end-all-be-all for Trump-related news can be seen as cable news crying “We’re still important! We do facts! We’re still relevant! And we’re breaking!” But what happened on live television offered no new information, no interesting hard facts, and no credible journalism. No doubt the Trump team and his entourage of zealous supporters will scream “FAKE NEWS” with the same fervor as Trump’s tweet about this episode. What’s worse is that other media outlets--especially print--have oversold Maddow’s mistakes in poor attempts to boost their own credibility. Could she easily be made fun of on late-night television? Definitely. Does she deserve criticism from the field? Yes. Does she deserve to be crucified outright and deemed unworthy of the profession itself? Not at all. In a world where the President labels all media as an enemy of the state, crucifying a potentially helpful voice for accountability shouldn’t be what’s needed here.

Still, the fact remains that "breaking news" is not going away, nor are ratings-funded stations. It would be nice to say "just get all of your news from sources that have time to thoroughly and objectively report just the facts," but that's simply not going to happen. That doesn't mean that we just give up and turn off the news forever, though. We have an option still: get your news information from multiple sources. If you currently limit your news consumption to five minutes of talking heads from Fox or CNN or MSNBC, you’re not getting the full story. You might not be getting any story at all inside those echo chambers. Instead, read NPR. Read Al Jazeera. Read the Guardian or other respected international sites. Don’t skim headlines, gloss over text, and only look at the photos.

(**Editor's note: The CBC has integrated a feature called News Watch, which aggregates real-time headlines from multiple sources, visible at a glance on one page.)

There’s a saying among journalists: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” This isn’t a call to adopt a lifestyle of paranoia. It means to seek truth above all else. Truth without commentary, without spin, without an upcoming book deal or hope of political office. The fate of the press doesn’t fall only on the shoulders of journalists. It’s shared with a public who has to crave accurate and important information.