The sad condition of New Jersey’s statehouse press
Around Trenton they are called Christie’s puppy dogs: Those remaining members of the statehouse media who seem to shill for the Governor in return for “access”. A bone here, a pet there, and in return they slobber the Governor with big licks and lots of tail-wagging.
Governors are terminal cases in New Jersey. If fortunate enough to win re-election, we all know about when they will cease to be relevant - and precisely when they will cease to be, full stop. Chris Christie will be remembered as a revolutionary long after his sun has set, not for the way he achieved power, but for the way he used it.
Christie’s working alliance with two powerful Democrat Party machines - one Essex County based, the other Camden County - marked him early as an adept and ruthless pragmatic, a practitioner of realpolitik. Even more impressive was his subjugation of the New Jersey statehouse press corps, something that revealed a guiding authoritarian impulse in the man.
True, Christie got a break. Immediately after the 2008 Presidential election, the major news organizations in the state slashed their statehouse reporters by as much as 60 percent. He had fewer newshounds chasing after stories about him. Fewer, with more to do, and ever more dependent on set-pieces presented with neat ribbons. Those who remained were looking over their shoulders, frightened about corporate downsizing, about being part of a profession on the wane.
It is no secret that some reporters look on politics, whether campaigns or government, as a kind of second act in case journalism fails. Since January 2009, there have been a number of highly regarded state house journalists who crossed over to the dark side. A few have even crossed back. Of course, all of this impacts heavily on the integrity of the profession - something that would make a stalwart like Professor Marvin Kalb weep - but children need feeding and roofs need mending. What choice do some have?
Christie understood this, providing access for two of the more ambitious who sought book deals, seeing that some were taken into the warm bosom of government (with a pension no less), or given other help with their careers. The editor of the state’s premier political blog was given a six-figure taxpayer-funded position which he negotiated while covering Christie and the statehouse. Corruption? Yes, of a kind. And his top blogger was promoted to the state’s largest newspaper.
This being Christie, along with those carrots went a lot of stick. Christie likes to make object lessons. One such was NJN, once the state’s public television network, now extinct, its reporters and editors flung far and wide. NJN’s mistake was to have crossed Christie one too many times, then to compound it by launching a corruption investigation into one of the southern Democrat family’s top cash cows - the Delaware River Port Authority. At least one journalist was openly threatened with violence and the FBI had to be called in, but two years later, despite the promises of reform, everything is as it was - except that NJN is gone. Gone where? Why into the hands of the northern Democrat family, of course. Neat trick that.
We were thinking about this today when something came along to confirm it. The New York Times - America’s newspaper of record here in the old U.S. of A. - published a front page story about the problems the Governor is having as a result of his campaign embrace of President Obama. The New York Times reported:
“Mr. Christie has been explaining himself to Republicans ever since. His lavish praise for Mr. Obama’s response to the storm, delivered in the last days of the presidential race, represented the most dramatic development in the campaign’s final stretch. Right or wrong, conventional wisdom in the party holds that it influenced the outcome.
But behind the scenes, the intensity of the reaction from those in Mr. Christie’s party caught him by surprise, interviews show, requiring a rising Republican star to try to contain a tempest that left him feeling deeply misunderstood and wounded.”
“Mitt Romney has suggested that the presidency was stolen from him by primary debate moderators and President Obama’s devious plan to improve Americans’ lives, but his former staffers know that isn’t the only reason he lost the election. Chris Christie also deserves some of the blame. Despite Christie’s argument that months of acting as a loyal Romney surrogate aren’t negated by thanking his nemesis during a crisis, since the election many Republicans have lashed out at Christie, and the Romney team is convinced that he hurt them in the crucial final moments of the campaign. The New York Times reports that in a ‘lengthy autopsy of their campaign,’ Romney’s political advisers found that a large number of voters who were undecided toward the end wound up voting Obama, and many said Hurricane Sandy was a major factor in their decision. ‘Christie,’ said a Romney adviser, ‘allowed Obama to be president, not a politician.’”
Big news for sure, but if you were a member of New Jersey’s political class, you might have missed it. There was a black-out on the state’s political blogs and no coverage in the state’s major news media. Perhaps they haven’t heard of the New York Times?
Instead, Christie’s spin team put the arm on one statehouse reporter, so that by 1:00 pm they had rolled out this response to the Times’ front page story:
“A new poll shows Gov. Chris Christie gets high marks on how he handled Hurricane Sandy - from New Yorkers.
The Quinnipiac University survey of 1,165 New York City voters found they rated Christie’s performance higher than their own politicians. When asked who did the best job responding to the storm, 36 percent picked Christie, 22 percent chose President Obama, 15 percent chose New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and 12 percent went for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Eighty-nine percent said Christie did an ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ job, compared to 85 percent who said the same Cuomo, 84 percent for Obama and 75 percent for Bloomberg.”
All of this would make a fine study of professional ethics at some journalists’ confab. Maybe even a book. But with a subjugated press back home, it is no wonder Governor Christie seems confused by the mixed reviews he’s received post-Sandy. In his mind, it’s not supposed to happen this way. Yes Governor, there is still a free press operating out there in America, and it will find you.