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Here's why Trump's tax return isn't Al Capone's vault

Rachel Maddow holding a copy of Donald Trump's 2005 tax return on The Rachel Maddow Show.
Source: MSNBC
Rachel Maddow holding a copy of Donald Trump's 2005 tax return on The Rachel Maddow Show.


Some critics are already comparing MSNBC host Rachel Maddow's reveal of two pages of Donald Trump's 2005 tax return to that time Geraldo Rivera opened Al Capone's vault during a live broadcast back in 1986, only to find nothing.


That incident made Rivera the laughingstock of his business, and forced him down the path of tabloid TV for many years following. But things are vastly different than they were in 1986 and the lackluster revelations from the Trump tax return won't have the same impact on Maddow as Capone's disappointing vault had on Rivera. The reason is simple: Niche programming.

The TV and digital news landscape is so varied now that anything resembling a consensus audience or "program of record" like the old days of Walter Cronkite on the "CBS Evening News" are long gone. And while most nostalgic Americans continue to long for those days, they shouldn't. Journalism is just like any other aspect of the free market, and that means more choice is better and gives more power to the consumer. And to paraphrase Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman, just tell me where in the world you will find these angels who are going to organize the news properly for us without political partisanship, cultural bias, or relative ignorance getting in the way? Let the buyers, viewers, readers, and web surfers decide.


Niche programming brings a more partisan-connected audience. Just ask the folks at FOX News who have dominated cable news ratings for 15 years catering mostly to a more conservative audience with little or no other options for their niche group. It's not likely that Maddow's more concentrated audience will abandon her in any significant numbers because of this tax return fumble. Sure, her core viewers are probably disappointed the tax returns didn't damage or embarrass President Trump but they won't hold it against her for trying.





Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.

Note: CNBC and MSNBC are both owned by parent NBC Universal.