Watching story change: This morning, the New York Times presents a 2847-word background report on the lane closings in Fort Lee.
It’s a familiar type of report. Once a particular story attains a certain critical mass, the Times assembles a coffle of scribes to offer voluminous background.
In theory, this is a good idea. In practice, sometimes not.
Today’s report was assembled by the traditional cast of thousands. N. R. Kleinfeld is the reporter of record.
Beyond that, “reporting was contributed by Michael Barbaro, David W. Chen, Jim Dwyer, Matt Flegenheimer, Patrick McGeehan, William K. Rashbaum, Nate Schweber and Kate Zernike.”
In our hard-copy Times, the report is accompanied by eight photos. We were struck by several parts of the report which are relatively minor, though they all tilt one way.
On a larger scale, we’re struck by an apparent change in one major player’s story.
Relatively minor points? Kleinfeld continues to say that David Wildstein “was a high school friend of the governor’s.”
Last Thursday, Christie disputed that claim at considerable length. We’ve seen no one dispute anything Christie said.
Instead, “reporters” have just kept telling the story they like. Just in case you haven’t noticed, this is the way the guild works.
(Remember that famous “21-year-old intern?” In fact, she wasn’t 21—and she wasn’t an intern! But so what? The story was better—much, much better—when it was told that way.)
The high school friend has been restored, as we’ll record in our next post. So has the claim that Christie “called [Governor] Cuomo to complain that Mr. Foye was pushing too hard to get to the bottom of the closings.” Back in December, this claim was apparently contradicted, on the record, by a spokesman for Cuomo.
Kleinfeld runs with the crowd-pleasing claim that Christie called Bridget Kelly “stupid.” That claim is extremely pleasing, but we’d say it’s hard to support from the transcript of Christie’s press conference, unless you’re a fan of tortured paraphrase and quotation.
Is it possible that these bungled closings were actually part of some sort of actual traffic study? Kleinfeld includes all sorts of material from the emails and texts, but fails to cite the emails and texts in which David Wildstein and others recorded the times at which traffic jams stopped on northbound I-95 as a result of the closings.
We’re just saying! For ourselves, we have no way of knowing if there was any legitimate attempt at conducting some sort of real study.
Those relatively minor points all tilt in one direction. But whenever the New York Times constructs a walloping good standard story, its agents tend to be selective in precisely these ways.
Remember Whitewater, which got its start in bungled reports on the Times’ front page? Remember all that bogus BS about the things Gore supposedly said?
That said, the most striking part of this report is an apparent change in Mayor Sokolich’s account of one fundamental matter.
Warning! When a good story starts taking shape, principals are allowed to change the things they’ve previously said! More precisely, they are allowed to change their story if the process brings them in line with the Official Approved Standard Story.
They won’t be criticized for changing their story as long as they are changing their story to fit the emerging line.
Has Mayor Sokolich changed his story? Right at the start of this morning’s report, he’s quoted saying that he was approached for an endorsement of Christie.
Unless the mayor is being misquoted, it sounds like he’s changing his story:
KLEINFELD (9/13/14): By his own account, Mark Sokolich rarely asks people for anything. “When you ask,” he said, “you usually have to give.”This story may be completely accurate. But here’s what Sokolich said last Wednesday to Wolf Blitzer, right there on CNN:
And that is how he likes to govern as the mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., a dot of a borough perched atop the Palisades in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge.
One day last spring, though, he was the person asked to give. A member of Gov. Chris Christie's re-election campaign staff came calling to see if Mr. Sokolich, a Democrat, would endorse the governor, a Republican. There was scant doubt that Mr. Christie would win. But his ambition was to win big. He joked that he wanted to eclipse the landslide record held by his mentor, former Gov. Thomas H. Kean, who prevailed by 40 points in 1985. His advisers hoped to demonstrate such broad support that Mr. Christie would become his party's logical presidential candidate in 2016. The campaign vigorously courted Democratic officials and notified reporters of fresh conquests.
Mr. Sokolich, however, was noncommittal. ''I said, 'Yes, I'll consider it, because I'll consider anything,' '' he recalled.
He chewed it over with local council members and two objections arose: It would be rude to State Senator Barbara Buono, the Democratic candidate for governor, and they were miffed at Mr. Christie for his decision to spend millions of dollars to hold a special election to fill New Jersey's vacant United States Senate seat three weeks before Election Day.
And so the mayor let the request go. ''I never called and said no, I never called and said yes,'' said Mr. Sokolich, who would not name the official who had reached out to him. ''I think they interpreted my response to that conversation to be a no.''
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?To us, it sounds like the mayor has changed his basic story. See if you agree:
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.
But I'm grateful to my instincts, because they certainly have proven me to be correct, because nobody should have to do anything like that or provide any support under threat of retribution.
Mayor Sokolich last week: “I’ve said this many times. I don’t recall a specific request to endorse.”To us, it sounds like the mayor is changing his story. That said, Kleinfeld seems to understand the process by which story grows.
Mayor Sokolich this week: “I said, ‘Yes, I'll consider it, because I'll consider anything.’...I never called and said no, I never called and said yes.''
Kleinfeld opens this morning’s front-page report with this apparent new claim. But he never suggests, in any way, that Sokolich’s story has changed.
We’ve explained this process for years. When the “press corps” agrees on a Standard Story, principals will often scramble to get in line with the story. They’re allowed to completely reverse prior claims, as long as their new account supports the Official Approved Story Line.
Did Barbaro, Chen, Dwyer, Flegenheimer, McGeehan, Rashbaum, Schweber or Zernike fail to notice this apparent change in the mayor’s story? How about Kleinfeld himself? How about his editor?
As a courtesy, we’ll assume they all noticed! But this sort of scam is quite routine when we watch story grow.