Part 2—Zernike, counting to two: New York Times reporting of the Fort Lee mess has been almost impossibly bad.
(Note to readers: From this point on, we are evaluating the work of the New York Times. We are not evaluating the conduct of Chris Christie, or even that of David Wildstein, who wasn’t his best friend in high school.)
The reporting has been remarkably bad. Consider what happened on December 10, when the Times made its first attempt to report this extremely peculiar affair.
On Monday, December 9, New Jersey’s Assembly Transportation Committee conducted six hours of hearings into the traffic lane closings which had occurred in September. On the previous Monday, the committee had held an earlier hearing into the matter.
Eight hours of hearings had now been conducted. At the Times, reporter Kate Zernike swung into action.
Presumably, Zernike had attended the two days of hearings. For whatever reason, her 1100-word report started off with an obvious factual error:
ZERNIKE (12/10/13): It would seem a minor whodunit for a small suburb: On the first day of school in September, three access lanes leading from Fort Lee, N.J., streets to the George Washington Bridge were unexpectedly and mysteriously shut down. Cars backed up, the town turned into a parking lot, half-hour bridge commutes stretched into four hours, buses and children were late for school, and emergency workers could not respond quickly to the day's events, which included a missing toddler, a cardiac arrest and a car driving into a building.Oops. Only two access lanes were closed, as Zernike seemed to know. Later in her multiply-bungled report, she wrote that bridge officials had been ordered to close “two of the three lanes” that lead from Fort Lee to the bridge.
Everybody makes mistakes. Zernike proved this point the next day, perhaps with the help of her editor.
For unknown reasons, her second report about the lane closings started like this:
ZERNIKE (12/11/13): The inspector general of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey opened an investigation on Tuesday into the sudden closing of three lanes on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge in September, which caused huge traffic backups, and the actions of a close associate of Gov. Chris Christie who ordered the shutdown.We were back to three lanes being closed!
Three days later, Zernike published her third news report on this topic. By now, she had abandoned her attempt to account for the number of lanes:
ZERNIKE (12/14/13): It began with a few orange traffic cones in September, when local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge abruptly closed for four days, gridlocking Fort Lee, N.J.It wasn’t until January 9 that Zernike was able to state the number of lanes that were closed at the start of a news report. Skillfully, she counted to two in a major front-page report, while making a larger misstatement:
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.Did those e-mails really “reveal” the motive for this peculiar action? Actually, no—they did not.
Even last night, Rachel Maddow continued discussing the possibility that the closings could have been payback for Democrats’ refusal to reconfirm a New Jersey Supreme Court Justice. Others discuss a possible tie to a billion-dollar development project in Fort Lee.
As everyone knows, the motive for these ill-advised lane closings is still completely unclear—unless you read the front page of the New York Times, whose ranking reporters have always been quick to settle on tales about motive.
Let’s be clear—Zernike’s problem counting to two isn’t especially important in the overall shape of this story. In fact, bridge authorities closed two access lanes out of three, thereby creating the traffic mess Zernike colorfully described.
The exact number of lanes they closed doesn’t exactly matter, though Zernike’s problem counting the lanes is not an encouraging sign.
That said, Zernike was bungling other factual matters in those first three news reports—and those other misstatements did matter. Those other misstatements started tilting the story in a way certain folk might tend to like—and Zernike seemed extremely willful with quite a few statements and claims.
Zernike’s more recent misstatements and novelizations have probably been more significant than the liberties she seemed to take in December. For today, though, it’s worth reviewing some of her misstatements that month, in the wake of those hearings, when Fort Lee was still young.
To appearances, Zernike took some remarkable liberties last month, grossly misstating, embellishing and obscuring certain facts. That said, the Times has behaved this way for a very long time when it assigns villain status in the dramas it likes.
(See Gene Lyons’ Fools for Scandal to read about the front-page New York Times reporting which invented the Whitewater pseudo-scandal. That highly willful misreporting began in January 1992.)
In her three news reports in December, Zernike struggled to count the number of lanes which were closed. With which other facts did she struggle?
Another fairly minor example: It was in those reports that the story about Christie’s alleged high school/childhood friendship with Wildstein began gaining currency. Here too, Zernike wandered the countryside, making a shifting set of statements, most of which were false.
On December 9, she reported that Wildstein had been “a high school friend of the governor's.” On December 10, she dialed that back, reducing Wildstein to a “high school classmate.”
By December 14, her initial claim had been restored. Wildstein was “an old friend of Mr. Christie's,” Zernike reported, “a high school friend of the governor.”
By now, almost everyone, possibly including Zernike, has abandoned these claims about childhood and high school friendship. Back in December, Zernike gave legs to this narrative in a shifting set of claims.
Who knows? Zernike may have believed the things she wrote about that alleged high school friendship. Her claims about the December 9 hearings seem harder to explain.
On December 10, in her first report, Zernike's clams were fairly mild, perhaps even accurate. By December 14, none of the testimony had changed. But Zernike’s descriptions had.
“Bridge workers” had testified that there was no traffic study, Zernike misleadingly reported. (She was speaking about only two such “workers,” a fact she never managed to state in any of the reports.)
And not only that! In their testimony, those same bridge workers “said they had feared for their jobs, because Mr. Wildstein worked for Mr. Baroni, and Mr. Baroni worked for the governor.”
Zernike hadn’t made this dramatic claim on December 10, the day after the hearings. By December 14, her story had improved.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at what those “bridge workers” actually said about that traffic study. We’ll also consider what they said when they were repeatedly asked to discuss their alleged fear for their jobs if they refused to do as David Wildstein directed.
For today, just consider the claim we have quoted—the claim that the so-called bridge workers “said they had feared for their jobs, because Mr. Wildstein worked for Mr. Baroni, and Mr. Baroni worked for the governor.”
There were only two such workers. Below, you see what one of them, Roberto Durando, said concerning that point.
What kind of “bridge worker” is Durando? The committee’s official transcript describes him as “General Manager, George Washington Bridge and Bus Station.”
Here’s what the bridge worker said:
ASSEMBLYWOMAN STENDER (12/9/13): Thank you, Mr. Chairman. You’ve spoken a lot about the chain of command and how you respected that. That’s clearly part of the culture at the Port Authority, that there is an existing chain of command. And when I questioned you before, you said [in response to leading questions] that Mr. Wildstein reports to Mr. Baroni, and Bill Baroni reports to the governor.Earlier, Durando said this, testifying under oath:
Clearly, David Wildstein, in my opinion—based on what we’ve heard today—acted with impunity with this whole study, and they— Not wanting to tempt the fate—
Did you believe that when it [the directive] was coming from Wildstein that, in fact, this was coming down through the chain of command from the governor?
DURANDO: I have given that no thought whatsoever.
STENDER: Thank you.
ASSEMBLYMAN WISNIEWSKI: So would it be fair to say that you did have a concern about your continued employment if you went outside of his [Wildstein’s] direction?On December 10, Zernike reported these statements in a fairly accurate way.
DURANDO: I honestly don’t know how to answer you.
WISNIEWSKI: Well, either you did or you didn’t.
DURANDO: Well, I was not fearful that I was going to get fired.
By December 14, her tale had improved. Zernike reported that this “bridge worker” testified that he “had feared for his job, because Mr. Wildstein worked for Mr. Baroni, and Mr. Baroni worked for the governor.”
That formulation comes straight from Assemblywoman Stender, who isn’t at fault in this matter. You can see Durando’s reply.
Times “reporters” have played it this way for a very long time. In her disregard for the protocols of her own profession, Zernike seems to be a lot like Wildstein, the man who ordered two traffic lanes closed—two traffic lanes, out of three.
Tomorrow: Testimony versus reporting
Discourse on method: In the material you have just skimmed, we were discussing the conduct of Kate Zernike, a major “journalist.”
We were not evaluating the conduct of Christie, a politician, or even that of Wildstein, a former bridge worker. Concerning Wildstein, did you know that those “bridge workers” each testified that he had been questioning the need for the access lanes from Fort Lee since 2010 or 2011?
We’ll show you those statements tomorrow. Wildstein seems like a rather strange dude. But then again, so does Zernike.