Excitement and misinformation reign, all other topics get lost: Kate Zernike was excited.
One unreliable person had made a rather fuzzy charge against another. It wasn’t clear what was being charged. No evidence had been presented.
But in this case, the second unreliable figure was a preferred journalistic target. So, in her initial report about the charge, Zernike fired up a previously abandoned misstatement:
ZERNIKE (1/31/14): The Port Authority official who personally oversaw the lane closings on the George Washington Bridge in the scandal now swirling around Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey said on Friday that the governor knew about the lane closings when they were happening, and that he had the evidence to prove it.Those were the first two paragraphs of Zernike’s “Breaking News” report. It appeared on line yesterday at 3:42 P.M.
In a letter released by his lawyer, the official, David Wildstein, a high school friend of Mr. Christie’s who was appointed with the governor’s blessing at the Port Authority, which controls the bridge, described the order to close the lanes as “the Christie administration’s order” and said “evidence exists as well tying Mr. Christie to having knowledge of the lane closures, during the period when the lanes were closed, contrary to what the Governor stated publicly in a two-hour press conference” three weeks ago.
Pitifully but predictably, David Wildstein was reinstated, in paragraph 2, as “a high school friend of Mr. Christie’s.”
It had been quite a while since anyone ran with that description. Tacitly, the journalistic world had acknowledged the fact that the pleasing claim had been wrong.
Excitedly, Zernike reinstated the bogus claim as her basic description of Wildstein. And yes, these things do matter.
In this morning’s hard-copy Times, the bogus description has been bumped back to “high school classmate.” In context, even that claim is irrelevant—and even it isn’t exactly accurate.
(Wildstein and Christie did attend Livingston High School at the same time. But they weren’t in the same graduating class.)
Whatever! At moments like this, the thrill of the hunt overtakes “journalists” like Zernike. And make no mistake—readers are affected by the inaccurate claims they choose to reinstate.
After Zernike’s report appeared yesterday, the second commenter quoted the part about Wildstein being a “high school friend.” The seventh commenter said this:
COMMENTER FROM CALIFORNIA (1/31/14): So, Mr. Christie's disgraceful behavior has now been corroborated by an old high school friend. His denial of his misdeeds only makes his behavior that more egregious. Is he the best that the Republican Party can come up with?Other commenters pondered the dynamics between the high school friends. When reporters publish bogus claims, people believe the bogus claims and form their notions accordingly.
As a quick overview, let’s consider the nature of Wildstein’s fuzzy charge. On the brighter side, let’s note a plainly inaccurate claim Zernike has finally dropped.
Wildstein’s central charge is rather fuzzy. In today’s hard-copy Times, Zernike describes Christie’s past claims concerning when he learned about the lane closings:
“He has repeatedly said that he did not know about the lane closings until they were first reported by The Record, a North Jersey newspaper, on Sept. 13, the day a senior Port Authority official ordered the lanes reopened.”
We’re not sure that’s accurate, but we’ll offer a warning. The lane closings were still in place early in the morning of Friday, September 13. Despite all the statements you have heard about the lane closings being “all over the news that week,” that seems to have been the first day that the topic reached a New York or New Jersey newspaper.
Warning! If we assume that Christie said he learned from The Record on September 13, a person could possibly claim that he thereby had knowledge about the lane closings while they were still in place.
That would be a rather stupid charge, of course. It would also be unwise to assume that isn’t what Wildstein means. That may not be what Wildstein means, but Wildstein is an unreliable person. It’s silly to draw conclusions from his claim until he clarifies the claim and presents his evidence.
People will jump to conclusions, of course, especially when they’re helped along by big newspapers and by cable news channels. In the comments to Zernike’s report, you will see many people who think Wildstein’s rather fuzzy charge has pretty much closed the case.
Christie's past statements aren’t entirely clear; Wildstein’s charge is fuzzy and unproven. Sensible people will wait for more clarity, the kind of clarity you may not find in some parts of cable news.
There are other problems with Zernike’s report. For example, when she evaluates the past relationship between Christie and Wildstein in a way which actually is relevant to yesterday’s events, she is extremely selective in the information she cites.
That said, Zernike has finally backed away from one of her most absurd journalistic mistakes. At long last, this is the way she’s now describing the motive behind the lane closings:
ZERNIKE (2/1/14): Mr. Christie’s office responded late in the day with a statement that backed away somewhat from the governor’s previous assertions that he had not known about the closings in September, which appeared to have been carried out as political retaliation against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, until they were reported in the news media. Instead, it focused on what the letter did not suggest—that Mr. Christie knew of the closings before they occurred.Ever since January 9, Zernike has been saying the lanes were closed in retribution against the mayor. She has been presenting this claim as an established fact.
Her new formulation is still lousy journalism. But she has finally stopped asserting that the motive for the lane closings has been established, “revealed.”
It only took her three weeks.
Scandal culture had Zernike excited yesterday. It led her to reinstate a high school friend and to make other misstatements.
On cable last night, the thrill of scandal had a different effect. Rachel Maddow’s entire program was given over to this topic.
This is the problem with scandal culture. Everything else gets blown away when the hustlers chase after the thrill.
You’re right—nothing else of value was likely to have occurred on Maddow’s show last night, unless you enjoy classic cocktails. But will liberals ever start discussing the interests of low-income kids?
Will TV liberals ever widen their range of topics? Not so long as they can enjoy the thrill, and the ratings boost, that comes along with the chase.
The thrill of the chase: Yesterday, this was an early comment to Zernike’s report:
COMMENTER FROM UNDISCLOSED PLACE (1/31/14): This is definitely gonna be better than the Super Bowl.That commenter has settled in for the entertainment, the fun, the thrill of the hunt and the chase.
The New York Times not only posted that comment. It actually designated the comment as an NYT PICK!
Out of Zernike’s 932 comments, some lost soul at the New York Times thinks that comment was one of the best. That said, the Times is full of lost souls who bring back their lost high school friends.