It arrived on Page One of the New York Times last Wednesday with all the subtlety of a supertanker berthing at a sailing marina, consuming all the editorial space above the fold. Based on more than 100,000 pages of documents, countless interviews, and the voluminous Freedom of Information Act requests that accompany such investigations, the piece, written by three of the paper’s ace reporters, was more than 18 months in the making.
Overflowing eight broadsheet pages, the 15,000-word story, titled “Trump Took Part In Suspect Schemes to Evade Tax Bills,” served also as the subject of a Showtime documentary. It accused President Donald Trump of “outright fraud” involving hundreds of millions of dollars.
The piece stirred both New York City and state regulators to commence investigations of their own that could ensnare the Trump family in years of consuming legal battles and force them to choke up hundreds of millions in fines and penalties. But even though the Times aggregated this piece for slow readers, produced clever video takes on the material and reprinted the original as a special section of the Sunday paper, the story has all but melted from sight.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called it “very boring,” as did Trump.
By the time the pundits convened on the big Sunday political shows, the story was a goner—according to Matt Gertz at Media Matters, none of the shows covered it. (State of the Union mentioned it in passing; Joy Reid had a segment; and CNN’s press show, Reliable Sources, interviewed one of the Times authors.)
Why are Americans sleeping when facts are thrown at their feet that show that their president is a crook?
Perhaps it’s because a tax fraud story doesn’t burst with the crowd-pleasing juices of pieces about mistress payoffs, Russian meddling, the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey, the hurricane response in Puerto Rico, Hope Hicks’ lies, and the sexual predator named to the Supreme Court.
A story—no matter how long—about tax evasion is too dry to arouse the public into acts of viral chatter. Stories about mistresses and spies and firings and lies give every reader a platform where they can stand to voice their opinion. But a tax story provides no scaffold.
Taxes are so painfully complex that most of us outsource our own filings to an accountant or a piece of software. Sure, the Trumps might have swindled various tax collectors out of hundreds of millions, but even devoted followers of the news have trouble following a narrative dealing in grantor-retained annuity trusts, illegal loans, dubious gifts, and fraudulent mark-ups of expenses. If only Trump had robbed a bank!
The Times story was also undercut by Trump’s willingness to own what he did. He’s repeatedly grinned when asked about his low tax bills and said they only prove how smart he is. In his formulation, theTimes exposé is just the death rattle of a dying newspaper. In his lawyer’s words, the Times piece is “100 percent false, and highly defamatory.” Here, Trump is taking his own advice on what to do when accused of assaulting women: “Deny, deny, deny.” And in the short term, it seems to be working! Three days after the Times investigation ran, the paper’s top political reporter, Peter Baker, called the week the “best” of Trump’s presidency.
Another reason the story might not have entered the nation’s bloodstream is that it contained too much for anybody—outside of the most committed—to read in a single sitting. Perhaps if the Times had chopped its monster into three installments, as many newspapers do with Pulitzer-Prize fodder, it might have grown legs and combined with all the other Trump scandals to enter the national conversation.
Maybe if Michael Avenatti had found a specific dollar Trump defrauded and offered to represent it in a civil action against the president and took his case to CNN and MSNBC, we’d be talking about it today in addition to global warming. But more likely not.
The national obsession with the Brett Kavanaugh nomination also worked against the tax story, but its other great liability was that it was so exclusively exclusive to the New York Times. Ordinarily, if a big story lands, say on domestic spying or the botched Iraq War or Hurricane Katrina, all the big newspapers and even smaller media outlets can add something immediately to the story. But no paper had anything close to what the Times had on the tax story, so Times competitors couldn’t immediately chase the tax scoop to create the updraft of coverage that distributes a topic into the high ether for all comers to inhale. (That said, the Washington Post’s David A. Fahrenthold has capitalized on the Times story to advance his work on Trump’s money.)
Perhaps the Times should have distributed some of the building blocks of its tax story to the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Politico and the Daily Beast before it published its magnum opus so that they could have done their own takes to give the story additional momentum. By sharing a small taste of what he had with other papers, New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet could have amplified the story and perhaps turned up new leads that would benefit the Times.
But mostly, the story’s lack of excitement is due to the nature of the country today. The public has grown accustomed to the daily storm of insanity coming from Washington. An opus about tax fraud, while it would have been enough to bring down any former president, hardly moves the needle today.