Interlude—Or so the New York Times said: In this morning’s New York Times, Jim Dwyer has a largely sensible column about the Fort Lee fiasco.
At one point, he states the obvious:
DWYER (1/22/14): [N]o one, apart from the people directly involved, knows why the Christie people did it. That is a big question. Mere stupidity is not a crime. Motive matters, at least when it comes to criminal law and governmental actions.Later, Dwyer cites the three leading theories concerning possible motive. “The third theory, and most opaque, has to do with a big parcel of land in Fort Lee that, when developed, would use the very lanes onto the bridge that were blocked.”
That third theory is only “opaque” because people keep refusing to spell it out. Let’s articulate this possible theory again:
That third possible theory:That would be heinous conduct. Is that what was actually happening? We have no way of knowing. As Dwyer notes, no one apart from the people involved actually knows why they did what they did.
Under the guise of traffic fairness, Team Christie threatens to reduce the number of access lanes from Fort Lee, a move which would vastly reduce the value of the billion-dollar development. Behind the scenes, they muscle in on the development money. They abandon their pursuit of traffic fairness in a swap for a piece of the action.
In a rational world, investigations are conducted to untangle puzzles like this. Newspapers report the various theories. More importantly, they put the basic facts on the table.
They put all the basic facts on the table. And they don’t invent any facts.
At this point, no one knows why this action proceeded. Unless they’ve been reading the “news reporting” of Dwyer’s own paper, the hapless and willful New York Times, where the motive has been announced in a series of front-page “news reports.”
Starting on January 9, Kate Zernike began “reporting,” incorrectly, that the mystery concerning motive had been solved. This very morning, Dwyer correctly says that no one knows the motive. But as early as January 9, Zernike—who exhibits Wildstein-level incompetence—was willing to say she did.
Her 1600-word news report dominated the Times’ front page. This is the way it started:
ZERNIKE (1/9/14): The mystery of who closed two lanes onto the George Washington Bridge—turning the borough of Fort Lee, N.J., into a parking lot for four days in September—exploded into a full-bore political scandal for Gov. Chris Christie on Wednesday. Emails and texts revealed that a top aide had ordered the closings to punish the town's mayor after he did not endorse the governor for re-election.With respect to the question of motive, that highlighted passage is wrong. But in the days which followed, Zernike kept making this assertion—the lanes were closed to punish the mayor for his refusal to endorse.
By January 13, Zernike’s error was being compounded. On that day, N.R. Kleinfield wrote a 2800-word front page report which went beyond what Zernike had said.
In his error-strewn report, Kleinfield plainly implied that the access lanes were closed to punish the mayor. (“It made sense that they selected traffic...The mayor's soft spot was well known.”) From the start of his highly novelized piece, he implied that the mayor’s failure to endorse was the reason for the lane closings.
None of these things are known to be true, as Dwyer notes today.
In one way, Kleinfield went a bit farther than Zernike had. He directly referred to the alleged traffic study as a “ruse” and a “cover story.” Those terms even appeared in some of the New York Times’ headlines. Here’s one headline which appeared in our hard-copy Times:
“How Political Ruse Became a Sweeping Scandal.”
Was the alleged traffic study a “ruse?” That’s one of the possibilities. In the theory we outlined above, Wildstein was only pretending to look for a way to improve northbound traffic flow on I-95 by reducing the access lanes from Fort Lee.
According to this theory, Wildstein never intended to reduce access lanes on a permanent basis. The “traffic study” was a ruse. It was really designed to shake money loose from that massive development.
That said, this theory hasn’t been proven. It’s entirely possible that this isn’t what happened at all.
That theory hasn’t been proven. Meanwhile, another possibility hasn’t yet been disproven. No one has shown that Wildstein wasn’t looking for a way to improve traffic flow on I-95 by closing those access lanes.
If that’s what Wildstein was trying to do, he went about it in a highly blunderbuss way. But the same thing seems to be true about all these peculiar theories. If Wildstein was trying to shake money loose from that billion-dollar development, he pursued that in a fairly stupid way too. Consider:
According to testimony, Wildstein was warned by bridge officials that the lane closings would be highly visible and “would end badly.” In one such bit of testimony, bridge director Cedrick Fulton described several such conversations:
FULTON (12/9/13): After the initial call, I called him back again. It was basically the same conversation again—just to restate what I wanted him to understand about the importance of communicating to the Executive Director, recognizing that this would likely become a media event at some point, so they needed to be involved.The whole world would be watching! Despite these warnings, Wildstein proceeded with the lane closings. After four days of chaos in Fort Lee, he was ordered to stop.
ASSEMBLYMAN WISNIEWSKI: Why would it become a media event?
FULTON: Well, it would be highly visible. My exact words were, “This will not end well.”
WISNIEWSKI: You said, “This will not end well?”
FULTON: Correct, because of traffic.
WISNIEWSKI: And this was a call you made to Mr. Wildstein?
Angrily, he and his comrades thrashed about in their emails. Despite the rising tide of public attention his ludicrous efforts had begun to create, Wildstein apparently wanted to continue his alleged traffic study.
Was this a case of steroid rage? If not, this whole fandango seems hard to explain, no matter how you imagine it. Could continued chaos really have led to a credible threat to reduce the access lanes forever, thus shaking kickback money loose from that development project?
It seems a bit hard to imagine. However one imagines this undertaking, Wildstein’s behavior seems a bit on the crazy side.
That said, it isn’t the job of a news reporter to form premature conclusions about motive, conclusions which then get reported as fact. It isn’t her job to say that the mayor was being punished for his failure to endorse, especially when the actual motive could turn out to be much worse.
Similarly, it wasn’t Kleinfield’s job to call the alleged traffic study a “ruse,” a “cover story,” when it hasn’t been shown that the data collection involved in this project wasn’t being done in good faith.
Yes, North Jersey! Data were collected and analyzed that week; the two bridge officials who testified on December 9 described that process in some detail. They also described the rationale for the alleged traffic study. They described its preliminary findings.
For whatever reason, actual data were being collected that week. Here’s sworn testimony from Robert Durando, general manager of the bridge:
ASSEMBLYMAN WISNIEWSKI (12/9/13): At any time on Monday [September 9] did you talk to your traffic experts or engineers within the Port Authority and say, “Hey guys, what do you think?”If this alleged study was really a ruse, those wasted man-hours constitute a fraud on the state of New Jersey. Unless you read the New York Times, where none of this conduct ever occurred, not even in overview reports which run almost 3000 words.
DURANDO: We had talked about gathering data, which certainly takes some time to do. Over the ensuing days—the Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday—data was provided that indicated, from their perspective, that there was a slight improvement in the main line, as we’ve discussed earlier, in main line travel through the upper level of the George Washington Bridge.
WISNIEWSKI: You said “we.” Who is the “we?”
DURANDO: The traffic folks that Cedrick [Fulton] mentioned earlier who work within Tunnels, Bridges, and Terminals, who download and analyze that data.
WISNIEWSKI: And so on Monday they were downloading data?
DURANDO: As it became available. It’s tolls data, so it’s people driving through toll lanes. As toll collectors hit different buttons, it counts those vehicles. So it takes them time to compile it. It’s real-time, so—I mean, it started at 6 in the morning. It would take 24 hours, obviously, to get 24-hour data.
WISNIEWSKI: So on Tuesday you had Monday’s data.
DURANDO: We did.
WISNIEWSKI: And that was submitted to your internal traffic department?
DURANDO: Those were the folks who were gathering the data and looking at it to provide some sort of an analysis.
WISNIEWSKI: So that was provided on a daily basis, or obtained on a daily basis, by your traffic department?
DURANDO: It was obtained—so for Monday, data was not available until Tuesday. The traffic folks who Mr. Fulton talked about, the planners who would collect the data, collected Tuesday’s data, looked at it, analyzed it, did the same thing with Tuesday’s data. By the end of the week, they had made a determination that there was a slight improvement on the main line flow.
That data collection is part of what happened that week—unless you read the New York Times, whose reporters have made no attempt to include these basic facts in their account of what happened. In the Times, reporters haven’t even described the rationale for the alleged traffic study—and the rationale makes a form of sense, unless you read the Times.
Please understand—Durando may be describing wasted time caused by a political ruse. It may be that this alleged traffic study actually was a full-blown sham, an outrageous act of fraud.
It’s possible that Wildstein never had any interest in learning about traffic flow on I-95. It’s possible that those state employees did all that work in service to a scam.
If that’s the case, those wasted man-hours represent one part of the fraud conducted against the public. But at this point, it hasn’t been shown that this is the case. This represents another problem with the “reporting” done by the Times.
In the reporting done by the Times, large parts of this weird event have simply disappeared. The Times has never described this collection of data. It has never even described the rationale for the data collection.
Times readers haven’t been told that this data collection occurred. They have been given the impression that the very claim of a traffic study was dreamed up after the fact, as a “cover story.” The actual facts have been simplified in service to a preferred story:
The traffic study was a cover story. The mayor was being punished because he refused to endorse.
That’s a pleasing story. Parts of it may turn out to be true, although people have noted that, like everything else in this crazy event, it doesn’t exactly make sense.
But so far, the truth of this story hasn’t been demonstrated—except in the New York Times, where the motive has been “revealed” and the collection of data has been removed from view. Where “bridge workers” have testified that they feared being fired, even though they actually said they didn’t fear being fired.
The Times has disappeared some facts; it has invented others. Tomorrow, we’ll return to Zernike’s early reporting, the work she did in December.
Yesterday, we saw Zernike report that Fulton and Durando said they feared they would be fired if they didn’t go along with the lane closings. That made for a pleasing, exciting tale, but neither man actually said that.
As we noted yesterday, Durando flatly testified that he wasn’t afraid of being fired. For unknown reasons, Zernike reported the opposite.
What would make a major reporter do that? We don’t know, but Times reporters have played these games for a very long while now.
Tomorrow, we’ll review that invention by Zernike in a bit more detail. We’ll also review a murky and misleading claim—the claim that “there was no traffic study.”
In her initial news reports, some of Zernike’s factual claims were untrue. Other claims were highly misleading, just this side of false.
Tomorrow—part 3: How many angels can dance on the head of a traffic study?