Rachel Maddow Needs to Better Understand Her Audience
Journalists connect better with viewers when they understand their perspectives.
Posted March 19, 2017
Last night, we had a couple with whom we're close friends over for dinner. After we finished dinner and before we played a game called Mexican Train, we engaged in a political discussion. When I mentioned that Rachel Maddow was doing a phenomenal job with investigative reporting pertaining to Donald Trump, they commented that she really bombed on her recent program regarding Trump's 2005 federal income tax returns.
While I had read that many people felt the same way, that response coming from them surprised me. I actually found the program very enlightening and extremely important.
When I asked why they were so disappointed with the program, they explained that Maddow's efforts had backfired because the tax returns showed Trump in a very positive light. They told me that as explained on the Rachel Maddow Show, Trump earned approximately $152,700,000 in positive income that year and paid approximately $36,500,000 in federal income taxes. The program confirmed that Trump was clearly earning a great deal of money and that he was paying the legally required amount of taxes on his income. This, they believed, proved the naysayers wrong about Trump.
I then responded that I had watched the exact same program and that I had a very different reaction. I explained that they missed the entire point of the episode.
What I learned while watching the program was that had there been no Alternative Minimum Tax, Donald Trump would have paid $5.3 Million dollars in federal income taxes on his $152,700,000 in positive income, which would have meant that his income tax rate would have been 3 1/2 percent. Among other things, the reason his income taxes would have been so incredibly low was because the tax return showed $103,201,242 in "write downs" that year.
The IRS describes the Alternative Minimum Tax as follows:
"Under the tax law, certain tax benefits can significantly reduce a taxpayer's regular tax amount. The alternative minimum tax (AMT) applies to taxpayers with high economic income by setting a limit on those benefits. It helps to ensure that those taxpayers pay at least a minimum amount of tax."
The importance of this information relates to the fact that Trump has vowed to eliminate the Alternative Minimum Tax. Without that tax, Trump would pay income taxes at a lower rate than the bottom half of taxpayers - those earning less than $33,000 per year. In 2005 alone, had the Alternative Minimum Tax not been in existence, Trump's federal income tax bill would have been reduced by $31,200,000. In other words, Trump's desire to eliminate the Alternative Minimum Tax is for his own self-interest and not to "Make America Great Again."
And, before anyone feels any empathy toward Trump for having paid $36,500.000 in federal income taxes in 2005, as explained on the Rachel Maddow Show, since Trump's federal income taxes were paid based upon the Alternative Minimum Tax rather than the regular tax amount, his tax rate was 28%, rather than 35%. He just wants his tax rate reduced to 3.5%. In other words, even with the Alternative Minimum Tax, people at the top in terms of income are not burdened like the rest of us.
There has been a great deal of speculation that Trump intended to use the Presidency to enact policies that would benefit him to the detriment of the country. This tax return, along with the knowledge that Trump wants to kill the Alternative Minimum Tax, confirms people's suspicions.
This particular edition of the Rachel Maddow Show very clearly showed why it's so incredibly important for us to see Trump's entire tax returns, not just the first two pages of his 2005 federal income tax forms. For us to trust our politicians and the government they run, we need to know the motivations behind their policies.
As was stated on the program, since we've only seen the first two pages of Trump's 2005 federal income tax forms, we have absolutely no idea as to the sources of his $152,700,000 in positive income that year. We, therefore, can't tell whether or not Trump is beholden to anyone. As was clearly stated on the program, it is essential that we know whether Trump's policies are designed to benefit him and his benefactors, rather than the American public and the country as a whole.
I'm reminded of Trump's claims during the Presidential campaign that he was self-funding it, so that he wasn't beholden to anyone. However, at the same time, he boasted about the fact that he has contributed to the campaigns of a great many politicians (both Republicans and Democrats) in an effort to receive political favors in return. He claimed that his hands were clean in that regard, unlike those of other politicians, because of the fact that he was allegedly self-funding his campaign.
What people failed to note is that Donald Trump is his own special interest group/lobbyist/donor. He didn't rid us of that problem; rather, he eliminated the middle man, to some degree. When all is said and done, Trump is concerned about Trump and his intention to kill the Alternative Minimum Tax proves it.
If Rachel Maddow bombed by airing this particular episide, it wasn't because of the information conveyed, but the manner in which it was conveyed. As soon as people learned how much income Trump earned and paid in taxes in 2005, they heard all they needed to hear, or so they thought. All they heard was that Trump has been vindicated, and that wasn't the point at all. The point was about Trump's self-interest (conflict of interest) with regard to his policies.
I notice a similar lack of empathy on the part of politicians, journalists, and reporters when they explain income tax threshold levels. For example, when they explain how marginal tax rates apply to adjusted gross income, they assume that the public understands what they mean by adjusted gross income. Unfortunately, as with all assumptions, that's a huge mistake.
The IRS defines adjusted gross income as follows: "Gross income minus adjustments to income."
However, in my experience as a family law attorney and mediator, I've long known that people who are self-employed or receive 1099 income frequently confuse "gross income" with "gross receipts." Yet, those two concepts could not be more different. Gross income is gross receipts less business expenses.
By confusing gross income with gross receipts, people overstate their income significantly. In family law matters, this impacts child support, spousal support (alimony), and business valuations, among other things.
This confusion explains why so many people who aren't impacted by such tax policies get so up in arms when they're proposed or enacted. As a result, those same people vote against their own interest. There's no possible way that people regularly make this mistake on their financial documents when dealing with family law matters and yet understand it properly when it comes to tax policy.
What Rachel Maddow bombed at was in not properly understanding her audience. "If educators are to relate effectively to students, they must be empathic, always attempting to perceive the world through the eyes of the student." In this instance, Rachel Maddow was the educator and the viewers were her students. Her failure involved empathy, or lack thereof.
Politicians, journalists, and reporters wouldn't be so surprised by people's apparent irrationality, if they perceived the world through the eyes of their audience. To a very great extent, their failure to do so is caused by an empathy gap.