Rachel Maddow’s slow-walk reveal of President Trump’s decade-old tax records on Tuesday night did not earn her much journalistic praise.
But it certainly earned her a lot of viewers.
More than 4 million people tuned in on Tuesday to watch Ms. Maddow’s report on MSNBC, the biggest audience in her show’s nine years on the air. It was the third-ranked show across all of television at 9 p.m., beating the broadcast networks ABC and Fox.
Ms. Maddow drew 1.1 million more viewers than her Fox News rival, Tucker Carlson, who typically dominates the 9 p.m. time slot. And excluding major events like elections, conventions and debates, her program on Tuesday was the second-highest rated show ever to air on MSNBC, the network said, narrowly missing a Keith Olbermann episode in October 2008.
The ratings may have been stellar, but the response was anything but. Since the report aired, Ms. Maddow’s approach — dragging out the revelation for more than 20 minutes, past the first commercial break — has been mocked by the late-night host Stephen Colbert and criticized as overly dramatic by political reporters.
In the end, what Ms. Maddow revealed was less than scandalous: two pages of a single federal tax return from 2005, in which Mr. Trump paid a 25 percent effective tax rate totaling $38 million.
But the vast audience she attracted, after teasing viewers with a vague post on Twitter about 90 minutes before airtime, points to an large interest in Mr. Trump’s tax records, which the president has declined to make public.
And Ms. Maddow seemed to strike a nerve at the White House. The president’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, denounced the report as “despicable and reprehensible.” Mr. Trump, in an interview with Fox’s Mr. Carlson on Wednesday, dismissed the journalist who obtained the tax forms, David Cay Johnston, as “not much.”
MSNBC’s audience on Tuesday peaked between 9:15 and 9:30 p.m., around the time Ms. Maddow was informing viewers of Mr. Trump’s tax payment. Viewership dipped slightly after that, but enough viewers stuck around to boost MSNBC’s 10 p.m. host, Lawrence O’Donnell, to a rare victory over Sean Hannity on Fox News, according to Nielsen figures.
As for Mr. Carlson’s interviewed with Mr. Trump on Wednesday, cable-news ratings for that evening were not yet available on Thursday. Viewership figures in the television industry have been delayed this week because of an electrical problem at a Nielsen company facility near Tampa, Fla.