This much we know for sure about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s bridge scandal: In 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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