Interlude—Recalling the chairman’s tale: Last evening, Chris Christie appeared for the “Ask the Governor” radio segment he performs on a regular basis with Eric Scott of New Jersey 101.5.
Treating the event as “late developing news,” Rachel Maddow devoted her program’s second segment to the things Christie said.
“New Jersey Republican governor Chris Christie has just wrapped up a live radio interview in which he, somewhat against his will, nevertheless answered questions about the bridge lanes scandal,” Maddow said as she introduced the segment.
Therein lies a small tale.
On the Maddow program, Christie will inevitably be said to be answering questions “somewhat against his will,” even when he does so on a radio program he easily could have skipped. Such framing novelizes events in a way which pleases the tribe.
But then, much of Maddow’s work on Fort Lee has taken the form of a novel. If it weren’t for misstatements, speculations and overstatements, it sometimes seems that Maddow’s program would feature no statements at all.
Consider what happened after Maddow played tape of a few of Christie’s statements from the “Ask the Governor” program.
For the most part, Christie said things on the radio program he has said in the past. He was giving the same old answers to the same old questions.
(In our view, Eric Scott had a very bad night. He asked lazy, extremely familiar questions which virtually answered themselves.)
We certainly wouldn’t assume that Christie’s statements were true or forthcoming. But it can’t be shown that his statements were false, and they lacked almost any news value.
As examples of developing news, Christie’s statements were thin gruel. And uh-oh! As she began to report what he’d said, Maddow missed a rather large irony:
MADDOW (2/26/14): Governor Christie ended that exchange tonight by saying he does not want to speculate any more until they [his legal team] develop all the facts that need to be developed and review all the documents that need to be reviewed.During the interview, Christie told Scott that he didn’t want to speculate about what Bridget Kelly had done. A few of the analysts cheered.
On that point, the governor’s legal team, and maybe even the governor himself, may want to keep a little bit of tomorrow open. Because we’re learning tonight that the New Jersey legislative panel that’s investigating the George Washington Bridge lane closures is about to release some new documents.
Alas! Maddow’s show has run on speculation for weeks, often on extremely tenuous speculation. Often, her speculations have led to accusations or insinuations against named individuals, insinuations which were advanced on the flimsiest possible basis.
This is very bad journalism. As she reported Christie’s statement about the need to stop speculating, Maddow seemed to miss the relevance to her own miserable work.
As she continued, Maddow described an event which may take place today. As she did, it seemed to us that she was possibly overstating again:
MADDOW (continuing directly): Last month, [the legislative committee] released these super-redacted documents handed over to them from David Wildstein. That’s how we found out about “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” “Got it.” Before he turned over these documents, though, David Wildstein and/or his lawyer Sharpied out huge portions of texts and e-mails, making it hard to understand what the documents meant in most cases. And who was saying what to who?As she referred to “these super-redacted documents,” three pages of documents appeared on the screen behind her. And it was true! The three pages shown on the screen did bear large redactions.
We are learning tonight, breaking news, that David Wildstein has turned over the un-redacted names and e-mails to the panel that’s leading this investigation, and the un-redacted copies are expected to be released to the public early tomorrow.
Again, that is what we are expecting right now, but when it comes to this story and New Jersey, a pretty good rule of thumb is to expect the unexpected. So we shall see. Watch this space.
For the analysts, this raised an age-old question: What is truth?
Were Maddow’s statements about the redactions true? Were they perhaps technically accurate but a bit misleading?
First, a bit of background: David Wildstein turned over roughly 900 pages of documents. The vast majority of those pages bore no redactions at all, as anyone can see by examining them on-line.
That doesn’t mean that Maddow’s statements were false. When she said that Wildstein’s redactions “ma[de] it hard to understand what the documents meant in most cases,” she may have meant to refer to the texts and emails which actually did bear redactions.
Still, an obvious tilt had been imparted to the story viewers were hearing. The analysts howled, recalling what Assemblyman Wisniewski had said.
Just last week, Maddow asked Assemblyman John Wisniewski about the un-redacted documents. According to Maddow, the pristine documents had “reportedly” been viewed by the special counsel working for Wisniewski’s legislative committee.
(For unknown reasons, Maddow failed to ask Wisniewski if he had seen the un-redacted documents. The following night, Brian Murphy told Maddow that Wisniewski had seen them.)
Whatever! Below, you see what Wisniewski told Maddow about the extent of Wildstein’s redactions, and about the intention behind them. This is our question:
Given what Wisniewski said, what would you have told the analysts concerning Maddow’s presentation last night?
For our previous report, click here:
MADDOW (2/18/14): Reid Schar, the special counsel [for the legislative committee], has reportedly now seen what’s beneath these redactions. Why has he seen them, and what does that mean about whether you’re going to see them and whether or not the public will?Wisniewski was a bit unclear in his use of numbers. Should redactions be removed from “a couple of pages?” Or is it more like forty pages, out of the 900 pages Wildstein submitted?
WISNIEWSKI: It’s a process that counsel worked out with one another. We wanted to see them from that day. You showed the clip where [Wildstein’s lawyer] was first at the committee meeting and we wanted to see them. So Mr. Zegas, the attorney for Mr. Wildstein, has agreed to provide them to our counsel, who’s going to review them, and they’re going to come to an agreement on what can be included.
What we’re told preliminarily is the statement that Mr. Zegas made, that they were outside the time frame or outside the subject matter, it’s pretty much on the mark. There are a couple of pages that our counsel says that probably should be included. So we’re hoping to work that out and have them included with the record, and I hope to have more to say about that in the near future.
But it looks like, you know, there’s a very small subset, 40-some pages I think out of the 900, that really probably should be included, but others seem to be just outside the date range or talking about things that have nothing to do with the bridge.
That point was left unclear. But this morning, we ask you to think about the general drift of Wisniewski's statement, versus the tone of Maddow’s presentation last night.
The vast majority of Wildstein's submissions bore no redactions at all. And Wisniewski told Maddow that, at least “preliminarily,” the bulk of the redactions which did exist seemed to have been done in good faith, for appropriate reasons:
“What we’re told preliminarily is the statement that Mr. Zegas made, that they were outside the time frame or outside the subject matter, it’s pretty much on the mark.”
According to Wisniewski, “a very small subset” of the redactions “probably should be part of the record...But others seem to be just outside the date range or talking about things that have nothing to do with the bridge.”
Last week, Wisniewski seemed to let a lot of hot air out of the latest balloon. By last night, it seemed the air had been restored. The story got exciting again.
Parsing closely, there is no literal contradiction between the stories these two figures told. But Wisniewski seemed to give the strong impression that the redactions had largely been justified.
Last night, the matter sounded quite different. As Pilate first said, “What is truth?”
We had planned to do something different on this topic today. We had planned to review Maddow’s program from last Wednesday night, in which two segments about Fort Lee created a playbook of practices a journalists shouldn’t engage in.
Worst by far was the part of the show where Maddow seemed to accuse a Port Authority police officer of grievous, possibly criminal, conduct, on the basis of nothing at all. In a heinous bit of behavior, she had to embellish what two different people said to float her insinuation.
Maddow engaged in quite a bit more novelized work that night. Her work has become so non-journalistic, it’s hard to keep up with the various forms of novelistic bad practice.
Last Friday, she appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher, where she invented a firing. Maher and another panelist criticized the extent of her coverage. They didn’t seem to see how much of her coverage has consisted of misstatement, overstatement, insinuation, snark, general bullshit and clowning, along with a tremendous amount of omission and the relentless failure to develop real information about a range of key topics.
As she invented her latest false fact, Maddow insisted that the lane closings really are worth covering. Plainly, that is true, as Maher kept saying.
That’s precisely the problem.
The lane closings may not be worth the amount of time they’ve received on Maddow’s show. But the closings involved very dangerous, very strange conduct—conduct which may have been criminal. They involve a major political figure, who should be dealt with toughly but journalistically—intelligently and fairly.
For all these reasons, the lane closings should be covered in careful, serious ways, in ways which make citizens smarter. Instead, Maddow has endlessly played the fool. No one got fired last Friday, alas, except inside Maddow’s head.
Her accusation two nights before involved some very bad conduct. But the misconduct belonged to Maddow, not to the policeman she dragged through the mud.
Tomorrow, we’ll put our shrinking cap on. Why does Maddow do this?
Tomorrow: What makes Maddow run?
Confusion by omission: What was Bill Baroni’s role in the Fort Lee lane closings?
We can’t answer that question, but Baroni was mentioned again last night. In this passage, we see one of the worst aspects of Maddow’s voluminous coverage:
MADDOW (2/26/14): You will remember that Bill Baroni resigned from the Port Authority in December as the Bridgegate scandal was slowly starting to build. Governor Christie announced that Bill Baroni was leaving the Port Authority. And at the time, he said that Mr. Baroni’s resignation had nothing to do with the bridge controversy at all.Maddow has devoted many hours to the Fort Lee story. In all that time, she has never described the panoply of events surrounding the so-called traffic study—events which made at least two major bridge officials believe that some sort of traffic study, or test, was actually going on.
The governor said at the time, quote, “This was nothing I had not planned already.”
Bill Baroni, you remember, gave what turned out to be false testimony about the bridge to the New Jersey state legislature. He testified that the lane closures at the George Washington Bridge were all the result of some traffic study, nothing at all to do with politics.
Well, the Port Authority subsequently clarified that there was no actual legitimate traffic study. The traffic study thing was a cover story to obscure whatever was really happening on that bridge for as yet unexplained apparently political reasons.
This represents a tremendous withholding of information on Maddow’s part. In failing to tell her viewers that officials were led to believe that a traffic study was being conducted, Maddow has tilted the scales against Baroni and against several others.
When Baroni testified, did he believe that a traffic study had occurred? We don’t have the answer to that; someday, we may find out. Given the way Maddow has reported this topic, she doesn’t seem to want viewers to know that such a question exists.
Last night, you’ll note that Maddow didn’t say there was no traffic study. Instead, she said that someone said there was no “actual legitimate” study.
Such words used to be known, unfairly we think, as “Clintonesque.” On balance, her statement about what “the Port Authority subsequently clarified” was just a big pile of hash.
At the very least, Wildstein pretended to be conducting a study or test. Given the hours she has spent on this topic, Maddow’s failure to report the relevant facts can start to look quite a bit like a scam.
On a journalistic basis, Maddow should have been removed from this topic long ago. That leaves us with a basic question:
Who is Rachel Maddow?