Part 2—Maddow’s important new theory: In this morning’s editions, the New York Times continues to report that the motive for the lane closings has been established:
“Last week, documents showed that one of Mr. Christie’s top aides gave the signal to his associates at the Port Authority to close two lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge in an act of political, traffic-jamming vengeance against the mayor of Fort Lee, a Democrat who had declined to endorse the governor” (our italics).
So Kate Zernike still says.
According to the Times, those documents “showed” and “revealed” that this was the Christie team’s motive. That simply isn’t true, of course—and to their credit, the people at MSNBC know it.
Last night, the channel moved to its third distinct theory of the Christie team’s motive for the lane closings. The channel thinks the Times is wrong when it says the motive has been established.
Plainly, the channel is right.
Last night, MSNBC’s third theory was offered by Steve Kornacki, who routinely seems to know what he’s talking about when he discusses New Jersey (and national) politics.
We’ll discuss that third theory in our next post. For today, let’s consider the second theory, which was advanced by Rachel Maddow last Thursday night.
When Maddow introduced the theory, she cloaked it in an air of grave importance. She was raising an important new question. You’d only hear it from her:
MADDOW (1/9/14): Thank you, Chris. Thank you very much, my friend. And thanks to you at home for joining us the next hour.Sure enough! For the next 18 minutes, Maddow explained what her site called “the alternate theory.” This was followed by an 8-minute segment in which she interviewed the target of the lane closings, according to her new theory.
I do have to say that I think we may have— This hour on this show, we may have an important new question to raise about this big story about New Jersey. This is something you’ll only see here.
It is a question we think should be out there in the middle of this discussion. I’m going to explain it to you right now.
“This is something you’ll only see here,” Maddow said as she began. Soon, though, her theory was being bruited by liberal reviewers and by viewers in comment threads.
Alas! When stories like “Bridgegate” start to grow, partisans are quick to adopt every new allegation or story line. Important new theories are quickly adopted, even if those important new theories don’t make a great deal of sense.
Within a few days, one new theory may be abandoned, with another one taking its place. Inevitably, one of these theories may even end up being right.
But along the way, we may get a look at the way story grows within our celebrity press corps. In this particular case, a half-baked theory was widely bruited with little sign that anyone had bothered to fact-check its most basic presumptions.
Why did Maddow feel the need to offer a new theory of motive? As we noted yesterday, she worked from a perfectly decent observation. That very day, Christie had noted, at some length, that he had failed to get endorsements from many Democratic mayors. Meanwhile, Fort Lee’s mayor said that he hadn’t even been asked for an endorsement.
Maddow played this tape, in which Sokolich said he wasn’t even asked to endorse. She then said, and it made perfect sense, that we may need a new motive:
BLITZER (1/8/14): So take us into this feud that was going. Did they really expect you, a Democrat, to endorse the Republican candidate's re-election, Chris Christie?Sokolich said he hadn’t even been asked for an endorsement. On that basis, Maddow concluded that something else may have motivated the lane closings.
SOKOLICH: I guess. You know, I've said this many times. I don’t recall a specific request to endorse, but, you know, the events that led up to all of this, I guess you can interpret to be somehow attracting me to endorse.
I didn't want to endorse for several reasons, not the least of, which is I'm a Democrat. I was supportive of Miss Buono. I wasn't prepared to do that.
(By Monday morning, Sokolich had apparently changed his story; he was quoted saying that he had been asked to endorse. In classic fashion, Maddow cited that statement last night, without noting the fact that his story had changed—without noting that she had been built her Thursday program around a prior, contradictory statement.)
Last Thursday night, Maddow said that something other than the endorsement may have motivated the closings. In that supposition, she was surely right.
The problem came when Maddow began to advance her alternate theory, which was at best half-baked.
“If it wasn’t the endorsement question that motivated the people who did this to Fort Lee, what was it?” Maddow asked. Attempting to provide an answer, she turned to an event from August 12, 2013—the day before Bridget Kelly sent the email which said, “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
On August 12, Christie made an announcement about a pending nomination to the New Jersey Supreme Court. He said he wasn’t going to re-nominate Justice Helen Hoens, a Republican, to a second, lifetime term.
(In New Jersey, Justices serve an initial seven-year term. After that, they must be re-nominated and reconfirmed for a second, “lifetime” term which extends until they’re seventy.)
In a press conference that afternoon, Christie offered a somewhat improbable explanation for his decision. Chivalrously, he said he refused to expose Justice Hoens to the Democratic attacks she would face in a re-confirmation hearing.
Christie was “outraged” about this matter, Maddow said. After showing tape of Christie making his announcement, she formulated her alternate theory:
MADDOW (1/9/14): That was an angry Chris Christie—so angry that he was doing something almost unprecedented in New Jersey, yanking the tenure of a state Supreme Court justice who he liked. That was an angry Chris Christie, furious with Senate Democrats at a hastily called press conference that took place late in the day on Tuesday, August 12, 2013.According to this alternate theory, the lane closings were carried out to punish Loretta Weinberg, leader of the Senate Democrats. Reason? The outraged Christie couldn’t re-nominate the Justice he so admired.
Tuesday, August 12, 2013, late in the day, the governor blows up at Senate Democrats. Yanks the judgeship of a Supreme Court justice and calls the Senate Democrats “animals.” It’s not just a Justice he admires, and a Republican on the state Supreme Court. It is the wife of one of his key staffers. He is outraged at Senate Democrats.
Late in the day, August 12. and it is the next morning at 7:34 in the morning on August 13 that his deputy chief of staff gives the go-ahead to the Port Authority: "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
Go to the list of legislative districts for the state of New Jersey. Find Fort Lee. Fort Lee, New Jersey, legislative district 37. Who represents district 37? They have two members of the state assembly, and the leader of the Senate Democrats. The leader of the Senate Democrats represents Fort Lee.
Roughly 12 hours after Governor Christie blows up at the Senate Democrats and torpedoes the career of a Supreme Court justice who he likes because he says the Senate Democrats are “animals” and not going to let the justice loose to those animals, the leader of those animals in the Senate sees her district, sees her district get the order of destruction from Governor Christie’s deputy chief of staff. Or maybe it was about that endorsement. Until someone who knows the actual truth about this speaks, it remains a wide-open question, and may be the key to this whole story.
The leader of the Senate Democrats, who represents Fort Lee, joins us next.
Everything is possible, of course. So is, or was, this new theory.
That said, we decided to do some background reading about this new idea. Our skepticism started with a simple fact—despite Maddow’s histrionic presentation, Christie didn’t seem to be “outraged” or “furious,” or even especially angry, in the tape Maddow played. He didn’t seem to be “blowing up.”
Was Christie outraged about Justice Hoens? Could that be why those lanes were closed—to get back at Loretta Weinberg, the leader of the Senate Democrats who represents Fort Lee?
Everything is possible! But this is what we found when we did some background reading:
Concerning Christie’s rage: Again, Christie simply doesn’t seem to be “outraged” or “furious” on the tape Maddow played. Maddow told an exciting tale, and she hyped it way up. But the tape didn’t seem to support it.
We read several dozen accounts from the New Jersey press concerning Christie’s announcement about Justice Hoens. In none of these news reports, editorials and columns did anyone seem to think that Christie was especially outraged.
We saw no references to any such rage. This was the heart of Maddow’s theory, but the outrage was AWOL on the tape and in home-state discussions.
Concerning Christie’s reason for dumping Hoens: Why did Christie fail to renominate Justice Hoens?
For unknown reasons, Maddow seemed to assume that Christie was telling the truth about his motives. Observers in the New Jersey press had less faith in the governor.
For the record, Christie’s chivalrous tale seemed utterly silly on its face. For herself, Justice Hoens wanted to be re-nominated. Plainly, she didn’t want to be protected from those animal Dems.
Beyond that, observers noted the political gains Christie would reap from his nomination of Faustino J. Fernandez-Vina as Hoens’ successor. This included Christie’s desire to curry favor on the national scene with Hispanic voters.
Christie actually named a name: In Maddow’s alternate theory, the lane closings were designed to punish Weinberg because of Christie’s rage about losing Justice Hoens.
Everything’s possible, of course. But Christie had actually named a bête noir in his presser that day, and it wasn’t Weinberg. He directed his ire at Ray Lesniak, a Judiciary member from Union County who had said, the month before, that he would oppose a new term for Justice Hoens.
Did Christie’s team close those lanes to punish Weinberg because of Hoens? We’d have to say this alternate theory was a few degrees short of being half-baked.
Maddow delivered a thrilling partisan screed—a screed that wasn’t especially journalistic. But Christie didn’t seem to be outraged as he offered his ridiculous statement about poor abused Justice Hoens, whose reputation he had to protect. And New Jersey observers didn’t seem to believe him when he outlined this laudable motive.
Maddow assumed he was telling the truth. She told viewers he may have been targeting Weinberg, failing to note that he had named Lesniak as the bête noir in the case.
Needless to say, every theory is possible until the truth is discovered. That said, this theory seemed rather half-baked. But so what? The theory was quickly being bruited by a range of observers. They didn’t seem to have done any background reading about the events in question.
At hopeless Salon, the theory was said to be “riveting,” an instance of “some very good investigative broadcast journalism.” There was no sign that Salon’s reporter had done any background work.
Kevin Drum even highlighted the new theory; no particular background work was evident. Drum: “This is just speculation, of course, so take it for what it's worth.”
On Friday night, Chris Hayes devoted a segment of his program to Maddow’s new theory, which by now had thrilled many souls.
“What has been dubbed ‘The Rachel Maddow theory’ is now an Internet sensation,” Hayes said in a tease. “After Rachel’s A-block last night, social media exploded about debates with the Maddow theory,” Hayes later said in support of the company brand.
Indeed, when Maureen Dowd’s Sunday column discussed the lane closings, a string of commenters felt pretty sure that Maddow had nailed the motive for the action. No one had bothered to tell these people about the new theory’s weaknesses:
COMMENTER IN MANHATTAN: I like the Rachel Maddow hypothesis that the state Senate leader, also from Fort Lee, was the target.“Connect the dots, people!” that Bronxville commenter said. “It’s Journalism 101.”
COMMENTER IN MIFFLINBURG: It is very likely that Rachel Maddow is right by saying that that the lane closure shtick was not about Mayor Mark Sokolich, but Sen. Loretta Weinberg, the democratic leader of the NJ Senate.
COMMENTER IN NEW YORK: Make sure to read Rachel Maddow's analysis of an alternate explanation. Angered by the NJ Senate's refusal to confirm his appointments after he became the first Governor ever to not reappoint a judge (Black. Coincidence?), Maddow feels he may have been trying to get back at Senator Loretta Weinberg who represents ta da Fort Lee.
COMMENTER IN LOUISVILLE: The Agatha Christie award goes to Rachel Maddow with Gail Collins as runner-up.
COMMENTER IN NEW JERSEY: I don't think it was about the mayor. I think Rachel Maddow is right: it was about the woman who is the representative (and leader of the opposition) who is from Ft. Lee.
COMMENT FROM LARS IN FRANCE: I was wondering why Ms. Dowd had not mentioned Ms. Maddow's theory which seems so much more logical: the timing is perfect, between an outburst from Christie against the Democrats on August 12th, 2013 and the Bridget Anne Kelly e-mail sent the morning of August 13th. The gesture aimed at the state Senate Democratic leader Loretta Weinberg, who happens to represent the district within which lies Fort Lee, was meant for all opposition Democrats. A spiteful, immature and very unleadership-like reaction.
COMMENTER IN NEW YORK: Maddow’s alternate theory explains the reason. Christie has been at war with the Democratic Senate whose leader’s district includes Fort Lee. The Democrats have been refusing (for good reason) to fill or renominate Judges of the NJ Supreme Court and to spare a judge he liked from what might have been a rejection he withdrew that Republican judge from consideration. The reporting indicates that Christie was enraged and called the senate Democrats animals. Early the next morning the e-mail saying that it was time for traffic problems in Fort Lee.
COMMENTER IN BROOKLYN: Watch Maddow. She has the answer.
COMMENTER IN PHILADELPHIA: Rachael Maddow has the answer about this vendetta. They were after the NJ Senate Democrats. Their leader is in Fort Lee. The night before the infamous e mail, christie was on a tirade about the Democratic savages. First thing in the morning, the " time for traffic problems in Fort Lee" memo appeared.
COMMENTER IN BRONXVILLE: Don't you people watch Rachel Maddow? It's Journalism 101. Connect the dots, people!
Did Maddow do something wrong last Thursday? We would say she did. As she frequently does, she played the role of partisan novelist much more than the role of journalist.
At best, her theory was half-baked, but she didn’t alert her viewers to its obvious shortcomings. In the process, she set off “an Internet sensation” among a group of people who may have assumed that Maddow does more perspicacious work.
Half the program was burned on this under-cooked theory. Other journalists rushed to advance it, without any sign that anyone had done any background work.
To Maddow’s credit, she continues to state an obvious fact—the motive for the lane closings has not yet been established.
On the other hand, Maddow is frequently irresponsible, by which we mean non-journalistic. She overstates in various ways, failing to warn her viewers of the limits of her knowledge.
Most strikingly, she tells heavily demonized stories, often going beyond what she knows. This may create Internet sensations among us latter day ditto-heads.
We liberals used to laugh at conservatives for these sorts of stampedes. Rush or Sean would spin a tale which went beyond what was actually known. The ditto-heads would stampede off to repeat and affirm the new tale.
Last Thursday, Maddow’s theory was really quite weak. Demonologically, she overstated Christie’s outrage and fury. Gullibly, she swallowed his rather ridiculous story concerning the need to rescue poor misused helpless Hoen.
She told us he may have been targeting Weinberg, failed to note that he singled out Lesniak. She didn’t say that New Jersey observers thought he had ulterior motives for the dumping of Hoen.
This made a thrilling partisan tale. A true believer could greatly enjoy it. To see how strongly she pushed her tale of Christie’s fury, you have to watch Maddow deliver her story.
That said, stories like these are not journalism; they are partisan scripting. But as with Olbermann long ago—his misogyny couldn’t be challenged out loud—so today with Maddow.
Within the liberal world, Maddow is a made woman. Challenge her and you sleep with the fishes. Her theory last week was rather half-baked, even perhaps a bit dishonest, especially when you watch her lurid delivery.
Thursday’s theory was rather weak. Why didn’t anyone say so?