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June 2012
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How to fumble a news scoop

By STEVE WILSON Executive Editor

This week's disclosure of two pages of Donald Trump's 2005 federal tax return provides a fine lesson in how not to handle a breaking news story.

First word of the tax return was teased in a tweet Tuesday evening from MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow ("We've got Trump tax returns"), saying they would be revealed on her program 85 minutes later.

Those overstated words attracted lots of attention, and she walked them back in another tweet that said, "What we've got is from 2005...the president's 1040 form."

While the network was using Twitter to build the show's audience, it also gave the White House time to get in front of the story before the program aired by accusing MSNBC of breaking the law.

"You know you are desperate for ratings when you are willing to violate the law to push a story about two pages of tax returns from over a decade ago," the White House statement asserted.

When Maddow's show came on, she did a great job of frustrating viewers by spending the first 20 minutes on a monologue full of background and opinion before getting to the meat of the story. She skewered the president for not releasing his tax returns and suggested they might show embarrassing ties to Russia.

She later defended her reporting as educating people who were not familiar with Trump's unwillingness to disclose his returns, an explanation that struck me as disingenuous. Maddow had a scoop, and in her ongoing quest for higher ratings, she wanted to milk it for all it was worth.

As it turned out, it wasn't worth much at all.

The return showed some $150 million in income and $38 million paid in taxes or about 25 percent. While that percentage is somewhat lower than the average paid by millionaires, it's not wildly off.

A Washington Post reporter labeled the tax story "a total nothingburger." It was widely compared to Geraldo Rivera's live, two-hour debacle two decades ago called "The Mystery of Al Capone's Vaults." Instead of finding bodies or stacks of money inside a Chicago hotel vault, Rivera broke in to find only dirt and debris.

Publication of the 2005 tax return did raise two legitimate questions, however, that deserve more attention.

The first is the enormous impact the alternative minimum tax (AMT) made in Trump's return. If not for the AMT, he could have avoided 96 percent of the tax he paid in 2005. Since Trump's tax proposals include eliminating the AMT, that provision merits closer scrutiny.

To its credit, the Associated Press story we carried Wednesday devoted several paragraphs to the AMT and the huge difference it can make.

The AP reported the AMT was put into the tax code to prevent the ultra-rich from using deductions and loopholes to sharply reduce their income tax. But the story noted it also "has ensnarled more middle-class people than intended, raising what they owe the federal government each year."

That ripple effect raises a good question: Can the AMT be amended in a way that protects middle-income taxpayers while still requiring those at the top to pay a fair share? That issue may not hold a TV audience, but it's worth examining.

The second question is whether disclosing the return was illegal, as the White House claimed.

It's not clear. If the return was provided by a government employee without authorization, that would be a felony. But it's unknown who sent it and whether Trump may have authorized it.

As for MSNBC's decision to publicize the return without permission, federal law says that's a crime. If the network is charged, however, it could prevail in court.

According to a New York Times story, "The Supreme Court has said journalists are free to publish truthful information on matters of public concern notwithstanding laws to the contrary as long as they did nothing illegal in obtaining the information."

The Times story cited a 2001 Supreme Court ruling that upheld the right of a radio station to air a surreptitious recording of a cell phone conversation that involved a labor negotiation. Even though federal law makes it illegal to broadcast such recordings, the high court ruled the station acted lawfully because it was "a matter of public concern."

Regardless of whether MSNBC broke the law, the network broke its trust with viewers.

Maddow overpromised and underdelivered -- turning a small scoop into a big-time bungle.

Reach Steve Wilson at swilson@paducahsun.com.

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