Opinion

Jack Shafer

All lanes close in on Christie

By Jack Shafer
January 14, 2014

This much we know for sure about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s bridge scandal: In early September mid-August, one of his staffers sent an email instructing an official, appointed by the governor, that it was “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” The official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey responded, “Got it.” Fort Lee access lanes to the George Washington Bridge, which connects the New Jersey city to Manhattan, were closed and days of vehicular mayhem ensued. When confronted about the closures, Christie’s people lied and lied about the reason for the closure, citing a non-existent “traffic study.”

What Christie knew and when he knew it, and the precise reason his office ordered disorder for the bridge remain unknown, although the affair reeks of perfidy on Christie’s part: Three Christie people connected to the closures have been sacked or have resigned as facts have emerged.

As the many tick-tocks written about the affair have noted, traffic jams are a way of life in the New York City metro area, making low the likelihood that one would rise to the level of a national news story. So what has lent this story such strong legs, which continue their march across the front pages of America’s newspapers?

Bergen County Record transportation columnist John Cichowski wrote an obligatory piece about the backup on Sept. 13, the end of the week it happened, but the story remained fallow until the Oct. 2 Wall Street Journal published the email speculations of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D-N.Y.) top appointee to the Port Authority about the brouhaha. Executive Director Patrick Foye pointed his finger at Christie’s people, which was enough to encourage a member of the New Jersey general assembly — a Democrat and chair of the relevant transportation committee — to announce the same day investigatory hearings into the lane closures.

Politicians and political staffs indulge in scurvy behavior so frequently that uncovering their naughtiness usually proves as easy as picking up the phone and placing a call. What has made the George Washington Bridge Traffic Massacre so notable, propelling it from its regional news habitat, has been its proximity to Chris Christie, an aspirant for the next Republican presidential nomination. For this obvious reason, anything Christie does or doesn’t do — his weight-loss surgery, his vetoes, acting out his crush on Bruce Springsteen — has the potential to make news. So it was predetermined by the Laws of Journalism that if even the slightest whiff of Christie aerated from the bridge story, it would be vaulted into continuing coverage. Once an appointed official gestured in Christie’s direction, the news was likely to produce more news.

Like so many scandals, this one has been fueled by an official investigation. Lacking subpoena power to gather evidence and compel testimony, journalists depend on those who do have such powers, and in the bridge case it’s the state legislature. Both branches of the New Jersey legislature are controlled by Christie’s political enemies, the Democrats. Even when subpoenas and hearings produce no news, they often produce leads (documents, the names of potential sources, denials, etc.) that journalists can chase to produce news for the next edition. But when the documents do contain news, and are, in the journalistic parlance obtained through a leak or other transmission, the chase is on! And there’s nothing reporters love more than the thrill of the chase. To put on the fedora and make cold calls; meet sources in bars and coffee shops where they are slipped potentially incriminating documents under the table; to massage the material for clues that will carry the hunt into new provinces in the pursuit of forbidden knowledge. Once a reporter has sipped this elixir, he can never surrender his taste for it and must prowl the vineyards for more.

As the Newark Star-Ledger timeline of the scandal illustrates, the assembly committee’s investigation elicited news-sustaining information from both Christie’s people and Gov. Cuomo’s man, Patrick Foye. Churning additional evidence was an internal review by the Port Authority, an investigation by the Port Authority inspector general, and the call by a U.S. Senator (a Democrat of course) for a federal investigation. As the investigation widens, the press is now asking if the Christie administration broke the state’s open records  laws in responding to its Open Public Records Act requests. Scandal always feeds scandal, but if this same scandal had erupted on the big bridge that connects Missouri with Illinois, you’d probably not hear a word of it on Page One of the New York Times. It’s been Christie’s fortune and now his misfortune to reside in the media-rich penumbra of New York City.

Without assigning any overt political motives to the New Jersey assembly’s continuing investigation of the lane closures, a Republican majority legislature would never pursue the underlings of one of their own this hard. Indeed, no matter what anybody tells you, Chris Christie is the quarry here, not any of his staff or appointees. As mentioned above, testimony, subpoenas, and investigations stoke the news furnace whether they’re productive or not. Add a presidential front-runner such as Christie to the mix and political contention — not just within New Jersey but across the border into New York, where Gov. Cuomo and members of his party are glad to help hurt Christie — and you’ve got the makings of a long-running story. In fact, if this scandal represents a proxy battle between Republicans and Democrats — being fought by presidential contender Christie against his New Jersey/New York opponents — then it’s in the interests of the Democrats to throttle the story’s velocity down and drag it into 2016, causing Christie maximum harm.

Christie hasn’t helped himself in this political crisis, so you don’t over-damn the Democrats for doing their best to break him. Christie has downplayed and made a joke of the lane closures, and now he’s trying to alibi himself out of the chain of command, protesting that he never knew anything about the crisis before the big exposés, except for the lies his staff told him. Lies are journalistic rocket-fuel, the starting point for still more stories about who lied, when they lied, and who they lied to. In claiming he was lied to by his staff, Christie didn’t tamp down the scandal. He fed it, encouraging the press to search for new lies and liars.

The lights will not dim on the George Washington Bridge story until reporters conclusively prove that Christie — the ultimate quarry, remember — did lie about his role in the scandal, until they determine when Christie lied, and reveal who Christie lied to. Even if the press determines Christie never lied, it will burn brightly for as long as he’s a presidential contender. Scandal stains even the innocents.

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Who is without stain? Send tissue sample to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com for confirmation. My Twitter feed is a bridge to higher consciousness. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTO: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie gives a news conference in Trenton. January 9, 2014. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
Comments
9 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Great article!

I specially enjoyed that eloquent romantic description of what motivates an investigative reporter. It’s the stuff of movies, the stuff of legends. And crucial to the political well-being of the Republic.

Posted by jrpardinas | Report as abusive
 

Nice piece. I find it very hard to believe that Christie didn’t give his okay to the lane closings. It’s the only explanation that makes sense. Otherwise, the people under Christie who are taking the blame for this did it assuming that they could pull it off w/o Christie’s knowledge. But that’s insanely stupid and you don’t reach the career levels they’d reached being that stupid. How could you think you could cause such havoc, in such a public way, affecting so many people, and going on for 4 days, without Gov. Christie finding out about it? That just doesn’t add up. Christie’s knowledge of the event would be the primary consideration. To do it without his knowledge and thinking he wouldn’t find out just makes no sense. You’d have to assume that he was likely to find out.

If there was something big to be gained, then you could make the argument that it was worth the risk, but that wasn’t the case. There was nothing to be gained and livelihoods to be lost. It just wasn’t important enough for a person to take such a big, reckless risk. Of course Christie would find out about it. Therefore, he must have already known.

Posted by flashrooster | Report as abusive
 

Send emails, texts, tweets, voicemails and notes at your peril. Unprofessional from the governor and his aide. He must have known about the closure……..guess governors have time for playing with traffic.

Posted by Bugzy | Report as abusive
 

One slight qualifier to a comparison between the GWB and a bridge connecting MO and IL, is that no other bridge in the world carries the load of the GWB, especially none between your two chosen states. The GWB carries more traffic daily than the population of seven or eight states of our 50 states. If you have never driven across it on a good day, then you really have no concept at all; and have no idea how ridiculous your comment sounds in the big population centers lining the 95 corridor from DC to Boston. We don’t tell you which combine to buy because we don’t use them…..and this is just as foreign of territory for all of the farmers making comments about how the press is so concerned about a traffic jam. The reason the populous rich string of NE states can send balance of payments checks to the rest of the states is because of our interconnections, our highways being a big part of that. We don’t give directions involving “turn at the second barn on the right”, if that puts it in perspective for you red staters claiming bias.

Posted by sylvan | Report as abusive
 

good article

The finger that points to democrats in the press is correct.

So How come Hillary didn’t get the same treatment by the press when she was off doing trade deals for potential campaign contributors during the Benghazi attack?

And how come it is not mentioned that Sue Rice did not get fired for lying…but she got promoted!!!! Where was this story!

The media should be investigated by the IRS’s new push to bully political organizations. They had to drop the bully of non-profits. So a bully just has to bully…so pick on political, especially the ones who are not for the dems!!!!

Posted by elpea123 | Report as abusive
 

As a veteran of analog newsrooms when this phrase was apt, I enjoy the nostalgia of reading “chase to produce news for the next edition.”

But more than a few younger readers could rightly ask: “Hey Gramps, what’s an edition?”

Dating yourself there, Jack.

Posted by Alan_Stamm | Report as abusive
 

I was hoping it would take more than 5 comments to see Benghazi mentioned. Let the craziness commence.

Posted by Strohl | Report as abusive
 

elpea123: “So How come Hillary didn’t get the same treatment by the press when she was off doing trade deals for potential campaign contributors during the Benghazi attack?”

It’s a little scary that you need this explained, but such partisan thinking is common on today’s political landscape. There is no evidence to suggest that Hillary Clinton intentionally did wrong, where as there’s very strong evidence that Christie or someone in his administration intentionally did something wrong, and probably illegal.

Besides, the press did focus a lot of attention on Benghazi, far more than any attention given to the 13 such attacks on US embassies and consulates during Bush’s Presidency. Your problem is that you’re only looking at these issues from a politically partisan perspective. You support as much hounding as possible when it’s a Democrat and cry foul when it’s a Republican. It’s all gone too far and is contributing to our nation’s overall ineffectiveness.

Christie has become a national figure as a potential frontrunner in the next Republican Presidential primary. When someone with that kind of celebrity may be involved in a crime and there’s an investigation involved, it becomes big news. It’s one of the prices a person pays for fame and fortune. Just think how Bill Clinton felt. He was investigated for having an affair and was forced to answer the most personal of questions while being video taped for all the world to see. The scrutiny on Christie is nothing compared to that. And the last time I checked, having an affair wasn’t a crime. So, what were Republicans doing spending tax payer money on an investigation for something that isn’t even illegal? I’d say Christie and the Republicans have nothing to complain about.

Posted by flashrooster | Report as abusive
 

This is child’s play compared to all the LIES Hillary has told. If is fact he is lying and i don’t think he is. Some people want t make her President when Christie would be much more trustworthy….

Posted by Nancianne | Report as abusive
 

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