|Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S. Alaska Hawaii (detail) by Nam June Paik|
Like a lot of people, I noticed Rachel Maddow's tweet Tuesday evening, the one where she ballyhooed having Donald Trump's tax returns. Something smelled wrong about it, but it didn't cost anything to turn the television on at 8 p.m. and see what was up.
I have to admit, I've never tuned into her program before, though I've caught snippets, online, and she seems an intelligent person, good-hearted and thoughtful.
But generally, getting your news from television is like trying to breathe through a straw: a lot of effort for a little result. Fox News is unwatchable agit-prop for right wing zealots, and CNN's reputation died when Malaysian Flight 370 disappeared in 2014, the network veering into some weird Twilight Zone of round-the-clock speculation, time-filling and tap-dancing. It was closer to performance art than reportage, with crazy speculation and holograms, a stain that can never be removed. MSNBC, well, I really didn't have a preconceived notion about them. Somehow related to NBC.
So my expectations were not high. Maddow began by ... well, I can't say exactly what she was doing. "Setting the stage" someone tweeted, when I began urging her to get on with it already. Establishing that yes, people were in fact interested in Donald Trump's tax returns. And those returns could show all sorts of interesting things, like being indebted to some Russian gentleman who paid more for one of Trump's houses than it was worth. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. The same couple ideas, worn to a nubbin like a toddler's adored blankie. Then a commercial break. We were introduced to David Cay Johnston, who won the Pulitzer Prize -- not the gold standard of excellence she seems to imagine it to be -- who has a book on Trump out, and received the two-page photocopy in his mailbox. Twenty minutes into the show ... nothing.
I went to the kitchen for a snack.
Eventually, after much waving of the photocopied return, it was revealed that, in 2005, Donald Trump earned $158 million and paid $33 million in taxes, and it was so obvious, at least to me, that Maddow had been played— by Trump. You want taxes? I can see him sneer, here's taxes. The few pages that don't show the depth of his enslavement to the Russians, or his miserable cheapness at charity, or any of the dozen deficiencies that make Trump an unfit president and are the reason he wouldn't release them. He earned a lot of money in 2005 and payed a defendable share of tax. This wasn't a revelation, it was a blow job under the desk, the tax return version of that New York Post headline "Best Sex I Ever Had." You could tell it was a plant because the White House confirmed its authenticity, and the pro forma howl of outrage was just a wee bit muted.
I understand there is time to fill and eyeballs to attract. But the Donald Trump presidency is a true crisis, and goofy shit like this minimizes it. Maybe, in my ignorance, I gave Rachel Maddow a stature she didn't deserve -- a friend who watches MSNBC said the entire three hour block on MSNBC is always talking heads hyperventilating about every Trump nuance "like their hair was on fire."
Our nation is in danger. This is not the time for publicity gimmicks and cheap stunts to hook an audience. A hundred and fifty years ago, newspapers would print melodramatic fiction. You'd get to the end of the story and there would be a line, "And that is what it might have been like had all the animals escaped from the zoo Tuesday!" The modern world killed that, supposedly, and Maddow's tax return PR grab was a step back toward P.T. Barnum because what she claimed, while literally true, wasn't true in the way she pretended it to be. She didn't actually have what she pretended to have: something significant. It was like my claiming I have a new Ferrari when what I really have is a new Ferrari tire.
Whenever I write about Trump or anything related to Trump, my readership goes up 50 percent. So by that logic, I should write about Trump continually. I don't because a) some days a half dozen outlets say everything there is to say about that day's outrage and I don't see the need to pile on or echo; b) four years is a long time, and we need to take a break from just gazing in horror at the calamity; and c) other interesting and important stuff doesn't stop going on just because our country is on fire.
If the sun were suddenly about to explode, but we had a month to live, we would not want to spend it reading "New Details on Sun Exploding" every single minute. We'd get it, and only want to hear truly significant stuff ("Here's the Date the Sun-Will Explode.") Nobody wants a list of stars that aren't blowing up in a month.
That's why I avoid the "orange Chee-to" cheap jabs at Trump. I don't care that Melania is staying at Trump Tower, or that he golfs every weekend even though he promised he'd never take a vacation. That lie has to get in line behind all the others and it's a long line. What I care about is that he is a deeply un-American hate monger, in thrall to the Russians, who is working to undermine the country morally, economically, physically -- yanking away health insurance from 24 million people, many of whom are so out to sea they voted for the man. That every day he works to undermine the legitimacy of the media, the courts, the idea of truth itself. He's a liar, a bully and fraud. The rest is just window-dressing.
That's what's important. And Maddow yelling "Fire!" Monday night, well, it makes battling the blaze that much harder. It gives Trump the chance to say, "See, the media scum saw the taxes," when we didn't see anything at all. It casts an important voice into disrepute -- she could say she has Steve Bannon's head on a pike, details at 9 p.m. EST, and I'm not sure I'd tune in. Rachel Maddow is still one of the good guys, but less an asset today than she was Monday. And the worst part: it was a self-inflicted wound. Someone dangled a few photocopies at her, she drew too fast and blew off a toe.