The New York Times Trump tax bombshell will matter if journalists decide that it does

Trump taxes

Citation Molly Butler / Media Matters

The New York Times report on President Donald Trump’s taxes dropped on Sunday night like an atomic bomb. The investigation, based on tax documents the paper obtained that Trump has hidden from the public, revealed that the president has paid no federal income tax for much of the past two decades, including a bill of only $750 in the first year of his presidency; that he achieved such low payments by reporting massive losses at his signature businesses and through potentially fraudulent methods; that he’s kept those businesses afloat in part with money obtained from foreign and domestic sources hoping to receive preferential treatment from the government; and that he has personally guaranteed hundreds of billions of dollars in loans that will come due over the next few years. The report, commentators have noted, shows that Trump’s image is a sham and that his perilous financial status has made him a national security threat.

Before the dust had even settled, some journalists began questioning whether the story would have an impact, or whether voters might already be immune from new revelations about the president. New Yorker Editor-in-Chief David Remnick’s analysis is the epitome of this genre, headlined “Donald Trump barely pays any taxes: Will anyone care?” But the reporters who are thinking this way have it backward: Voters will care about the story if the press tells them, with the volume and tenor of its coverage, that they should. That’s how the media’s agenda-setting power works. 

Today, the mainstream press is signaling to Americans that the Times’ report is important.

Meanwhile, Trump’s media allies are burying it, using their own agenda-setting power to push their audience’s attention toward other stories.

The more the press sustains coverage of the Times report, the more it will matter. Trump’s willingness to flood the zone with disinformation, corruption, and bigotry has diffused the press’s agenda-setting influence in recent years; so has the Republican Party’s decades-long campaign to convince its supporters not to believe what they hear from the media, and the fractured media environment that resulted in part from them abandoning credible sources for right-wing propaganda. But the power the press wields remains immense -- in 2015 and 2016, the sheer volume of attention journalists provided turned the intricacies of federal record-keeping law into the single most-discussed, most important story of the presidential campaign.

If the press decides to move on to other stories, the Times report will fade. That’s what happened in 2018, when the same Times reporters produced a bombshell revealing that the president’s business empire had been built on tax fraud. After an initial flurry, coverage dissipated as journalists instead focused their attention on the GOP push to confirm Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh; it didn’t even warrant a mention on any of the four major Sunday morning broadcast political talk shows the week it came out. 

Indeed, the very weekend after the 2018 story broke, a major newspaper’s top political reporter wrote that Trump had just enjoyed the best week of his presidency, without even a mention of the Times bombshell. 

That reporter’s employer? The Times itself. 

If the nation’s segment producers and newspaper and online editors decide this story is worthwhile, it will have more of an impact than that one did. But those journalists are not passive observers operating at the whim of the voters -- they are making choices about what matters.