Part 4—The Times on the head of a pin: Is it even possible?
Is it possible that David Wildstein was trying to conduct a traffic study when he closed two access lanes from the town of Fort Lee?
That wouldn’t be our first guess. That said, guesswork is massively overrated—and everything is possible! In this case, that possibility hasn’t yet been disproven.
That wouldn’t be our first guess! But whatever Wildstein was trying to do, he went to a lot of trouble to do it—and he burned the time and energy of quite a few state employees in the process.
You’d never know it from reading the New York Times, whose front-page “news reports” have reeked of novelization. But Wildstein did the following things on and before the week of September 9, when the lanes were shut down:
*According to the Bergen Record, he caused traffic engineers to predict what would happen in Fort Lee if the lanes were closed.Does that mean that Wildstein was trying to conduct a real traffic study? Not necessarily, no! He may have been defrauding the state, robbing it of those employees’ time as he staged an elaborate hoax.
*According to sworn testimony by two bridge officials, he caused the Port Authority’s staff to gather traffic data all during that fateful week.
*Those traffic data were analyzed. According to the testimony of those officials, a slight improvement had occurred in northbound traffic flow on I-95.
*As can be seen in the emails which have been released, Wildstein discussed this change in northbound traffic flow with his Christie teammates in real time that week.
But none of the conduct we have listed has even been reported in the lengthy, front-page reports presented by the New York Times, which seems to have taken a series of shortcuts to a novelized story it likes.
At this point, we might include an interesting bit of testimony from the legislative hearings held on December 9.
For the full transcript of the hearing, click here.
Bridge director Cedrick Fulton testified first. At one point, he introduced am unwelcome fact which complicates the tale:
WISNIEWSKI (12/9/13): Was this the first discussion that you had had with Mr. Wildstein about the three lanes?Say what? Wildstein had inquired about the three access lanes several years before?
WISNIEWSKI: Was there a prior discussion?
FULTON: He had made references to it in the past, just in passing, just to comment, “What about the three lanes? How long have the three lanes been in effect?” To which I would answer, “As long as I’ve been cognizant of Fort Lee and its relationship to the George Washington Bridge, those three lanes have been there.”
WISNIEWSKI: You had said in passing he had mentioned it previously.
WISNIEWSKI: Can you tell me when that was? Can you specify a date or specify a month?
FULTON: I really can’t because I didn’t focus on it, because it was just a comment, an observation that he had made to me. It may have been late 2010, 2011—just a comment and observation.
Sometimes, such unwelcome facts complicate preferred tales. But wouldn’t you know it? In his own sworn testimony, bridge general manager Robert Durando said the same darn thing:
DURANDO (12/9/13): Mr. Fulton had made reference to a remark that Wildstein had made to him back in 2010 or 2011 with regard to traffic lanes being dedicated to Fort Lee. I, too, am unclear on the exact time frame, but it was probably a couple of years ago when Mr. Wildstein was at the bridge. And he asked about why those three lanes were dedicated to Fort Lee. And we actually walked out to the upper-level plaza and he remarked to me that, “There are a lot of New York plates coming through those lanes, Bob.”Manifestly, this doesn’t mean that Wildstein was acting in good faith on August 21, 2013, when he told Fulton that the lane closings may lie ahead. That said, these facts complicate a preferred, simple tale, and so they’ve never been mentioned at all.
WISNIEWSKI: A lot of New York plates coming through the so-called Fort Lee lanes?
DURANDO: The dedicated Fort Lee lanes, right.
WISNIEWSKI: So that was the first conversation you ever had with Mr. Wildstein about this issue?
That said, the fact that Wildstein alerted Fulton on that date has also gone unreported. In the Times, the fact that planners were directed to create those predictions has also gone unmentioned.
The collection of traffic data that week has not been mentioned by the Times, even as it fills its front pages with silly, tabloidized “news reports” stretching to 2800 words—“news reports” which are larded with various inaccurate statements.
What kinds of inaccurate statements? Below, you see what Kate Zernike reported about Fulton and Durando on December 14.
In this report, she failed to name or number the officials in question, of whom there were two; she described them as “Port Authority workers.” From context, it’s clear that she is referring to Fulton and Durando in this passage and to no one else:
ZERNIKE (12/14/13): Mr. Wildstein, the workers said, told them not to tell anyone about the closings, and had not followed procedure for such significant changes to traffic patterns—75,000 cars use those lanes each day. The Port Authority workers said they had gone along with the plan despite warning it would “not end well”; they said they had feared for their jobs, because Mr. Wildstein worked for Mr. Baroni, and Mr. Baroni worked for the governor.Given five days to get her facts straight, that’s what Zernike reported.
Did the “workers” say they feared for their jobs, for the reason stated? Below, you can see what Durando actually said in response to a direct question:
ASSEMBLYMAN WISNIEWSKI (12/9/13): He currently still works for the Port Authority. Does Mr. Wildstein have the ability to terminate your employment?Oops. Also this, a bit later:
DURANDO: I suspect he does.
WISNIEWSKI: So would it be fair to say that you did have a concern about your continued employment if you went outside of his direction?
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.
ASSEMBLYWOMAN STENDER (12/9/13): 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.Without question, Wildstein did behave with impunity; his motive and conduct may have been much worse. But we’re talking about our journalists here, and people need to watch their wallets when “journalists” like Zernike start typing these familiar embellished tales.
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 order to close the lanes] 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.
(During the hearing, Fulton was also encouraged to say that he had feared getting fired. Whatever the actual truth may be, he too declined to make the preferred statement. In her subsequent news reports, Zernike simply made the statement for him, creating a more pleasing tale. By failing to name or even number the “workers” who said they feared for their jobs, Zernike reduced the likelihood that anyone would correct her.)
Starting on December 10, the news reporting by the Times has been a familiar mess. It took Zernike almost a month just to get clear on the number of lanes which were closed in Fort Lee that week (two). Along the way, she made an array of outright misstatements, while introducing inane tabloid elements to her reports and omitting basic facts.
On January 13, N.R. Kleinfield’s 2800-word front-page overview was, if anything, worse. Whatever this clownish pair was doing, it wasn’t news reporting.
Please note: Some of the facts these clowns disappeared may make this story even worse for Wildstein. If Wildstein wasn’t conducting a good faith study, it only makes his conduct worse to see him wasting the time of traffic engineers in the ten days before the lane closures and during the entire week of September 9.
If Wildstein was conducting a scam, he wasted the time of a lot of state employees as he carried it out. Was the traffic study a scam? Quite possibly, it was. But manifestly, it wasn’t a story he dreamed up after the fact—unless you’re reading the New York Times, which often gave that impression as it omitted key facts.
As noted, Wildstein ordered traffic projections, collected traffic data, subjected the data to analysis. This is a basic part of what he did, but these actions have not been reported in any of the New York Times’ lengthy front-page reports.
What has this conduct disappeared? We’ll take a guess: reporters were crafting a simpler, more pleasing, more elegant story. Below, you see the hapless way Zernike began her 1600-word front-page report on January 9, when the Fort Lee fiasco reached a new level of coverage:
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.The full report ran 1642 words. Let us count the problems just in those first six grafs:
''Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,'' Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff to Mr. Christie, emailed David Wildstein, a high school friend of the governor who worked at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the bridge.
Later text messages mocked concerns that school buses filled with students were stuck in gridlock: ''They are the children of Buono voters,'' Mr. Wildstein wrote, referring to Mr. Christie's opponent Barbara Buono.
The emails are striking in their political maneuvering, showing Christie aides gleeful about some of the chaos that resulted. Emergency vehicles were delayed in responding to three people with heart problems and a missing toddler, and commuters were left fuming. One of the governor's associates refers to the mayor of Fort Lee as ''this little Serbian,'' and Ms. Kelly exchanges messages about the plan while she is in line to pay her respects at a wake.
Mr. Christie denied knowledge of the emails and said his staff was to blame. The growing scandal threatens to tarnish him at the moment he assumes an even larger position on the national stage, as chairman of the Republican Governors Association and an all-but-certain candidate for his party's presidential nomination in 2016.
While the emails do not establish that the governor himself called for the lane closings, they show his staff was intimately involved, contrary to Mr. Christie's repeated avowals that no one in his office or campaign knew about them. In fact, the emails show, several staff members and appointees worked to cover up the scheme under the ruse that it was a traffic study.
First, those emails did not “reveal” the motive for the lane closings, a point that even our major journalists seem to have realized by now. Zernike continued to make this claim over the next several days.
Wildstein was not “a high school friend of the governor.” In the past week, that popular claim has at last been dropped all through the mainstream press.
The fact that Kelly sent an email from a wake has nothing to do with anything. Zernike placed that piffle in paragraph 4 to heighten the tabloid excitement.
Finally, we reach the ur-passage. According to Zernike, several staffers and appointees “worked to cover up the scheme under the ruse that it was a traffic study.”
The word “ruse” entered the Times reporting that day, creating a lot of confusion. To this day, many people think this “cover story” was dreamed up after the fact, in the weeks after the lane closings. That is plainly untrue, but in thousands of words of reporting, the Times has made no attempt to present the fuller picture of what Wildstein actually did.
Did Wildstein conduct a traffic study that week? For various reasons, it’s hard to say. But alas! In that December 9 hearing, a semantic conundrum took form concerning the term “traffic study.”
There was never any doubt that traffic data were collected and analyzed that week. If Wildstein was engaged in a hoax, this conduct only deepens the extent of his misconduct.
That said, some assembly members seemed eager to create certain talking points. One example: Rather plainly, they wanted Fulton and Durando to say they’d feared getting fired.
They also wanted the “workers” to say there had been no traffic study. This created pointless ruminations about the essence of same:
Durando had testified, at some length, about the stated rationale for the project—a project he himself had described as a traffic study. In some detail, he had described the collection of data, and the process by which the data were analyzed.
He even described the findings, which were worse than underwhelming. “By the end of the week, they had made a determination that there was a slight improvement on the main line flow,” he said. That slight improvement on I-95 had been purchased at the cost of chaos in Fort Lee.
(In Durando’s full statement, “they” referred to “the traffic folk”/“the planners”—the people whose valuable time Wildstein was quite likely wasting.)
Data were collected and analyzed; this had produced a rather pitiful finding. That said, some assembly members seemed to want a talking point.
They seemed willing to work to create it.
No written report had been prepared in the aftermath of the lane closings. In that rather specialized sense, there had been no “study.” Recalling Socrates in The Republic, an assembly member led her own Glaucon toward a preferred conclusion:
ASSEMBLYWOMAN STENDER (12/9/13): So this traffic—so-called traffic study. You said that they were gathering data. Has there been a traffic study presented anywhere as a result of that closure that week?Durando had seen no “report.” To Stender, this meant there was no “traffic study;” they were “just gathering data!”
DURANDO: I have not seen anything, no.
STENDER: So has anything been done with the data that would substantiate the premise that there was a traffic study going on?
DURANDO: Other than a verbal with regard to the slight improvement to main line traffic flow, I have seen no report.
STENDER: So it really calls into question whether there was, in fact, any traffic study done, when they were just gathering data.
DURANDO: One could reach that conclusion.
STENDER: Because a traffic study would mean that all of that data would have been sent out for additional, further study to speak to this issue of whether these lanes should exist or not.
DURANDO: Studies should result in a conclusion, yes.
STENDER: And there were none.
Angels were dancing on heads of pins as this discussion proceeded. It’s easy to state the basic facts here—traffic data were collected and analyzed, but no report was written. But here’s the simplified way the hapless Zernike reported these facts the next day:
ZERNIKE (12/10/13): [Christie’s] chief appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the bridge, insisted that the lane closings were simply part of a traffic study.If you read the New York Times, Fulton and Durando said they had feared for their jobs. They also said that there was no traffic study. Full stop!
But on Friday, the man who ordered the closings—a high school friend of the governor's who was a small-town mayor and the founder of an anonymous political blog before Mr. Christie's appointee created a job for him at the Port Authority—resigned, saying the issue had become ''a distraction.''
And testifying under subpoena in Trenton on Monday, bridge workers described Mr. Christie's associates' ordering the closings, and called the different maneuvers “unprecedented,” “odd” and “wrong.” There was, they said, no study.
We would call the first statement false, the second absurdly misleading.
Zernike never mentioned the data collection which proceeded all week. She never mentioned the data analysis or the pitiful finding.
Instead, she created the world’s simplest story, a story her readers were asked to enjoy: Christie’s man said there was a traffic study. Bridge workers said that was false!
Later in that same report, Zernike described the week’s events in a bit more detail. Note the way she described the rationale for the lane closings:
ZERNIKE (12/10/13): About 70,000 cars from all over northern New Jersey travel along the three access lanes each day, and on the first day of what would be four days of the shutdown, cars stalled the streets of Fort Lee. Cedric [sic] Fulton, the director of tunnels and bridges at the Port Authority, testified on Monday that he had repeatedly told Mr. Wildstein that it would cause a traffic disaster. ''My exact words were, 'This will not end well,' '' he said.Please. That highlighted statement is technically accurate, but clownishly truncated.
When Mr. Fulton asked Mr. Wildstein whether he had informed Fort Lee officials and its police, or Mr. Foye, or the media, Mr. Wildstein replied, he testified: ''Don't worry about that. We will take care of it.''
Mr. Wildstein told the bridge workers that the study was to determine how traffic would be affected if local lanes were shut down.
It was easy to state the rationale. According to testimony, Wildstein told the two “bridge workers” that he wanted to determine if traffic flow on I-95 could be improved if Fort Lee’s lanes were reduced.
(Fulton: “The question was, if there was only one lane as opposed to three, could the overall throughput through the George Washington Bridge be improved? That was the fundamental question that he was asking, for which I didn’t have an answer.”)
Wildstein said the study “was to determine how traffic would be affected if local lanes were shut down?” Yes, if you're in third grade! If that represents Zernike’s best effort, she should be given desk duties right now.
If that isn’t her best effort, why was it in the Times?
Can we talk? As a journalist, Zernike strongly resembles Wildstein as a traffic planner. At best, her work is clownishly bad. Presumably, it’s less than honest.
At any rate, this is the way the world was told that there was no traffic study. The data collection simply wasn’t reported at all; a ridiculous rationale was concocted; readers were told that “bridge workers” said there was no study at all. Given the length of the Times’ reports, that would be a harlequin’s account of what actually happened that week.
That said, the Times has crafted our nation’s stories in this manner for a long time. These practices date to the days when the Times invented the Whitewater scandal. They date to the days when the New York Times reinvented Al Gore as a liar.
Earlier this month, these same practices prevailed when the Times continued to misparaphrase and even misquote Susan Rice. Kate Zernike may be a clown, but she belongs to a troupe.
On the bright side, we keep getting handed our simple-ass tales, the ones which are easy to read in the morning.
Sometimes these silly novelized tales cut in “our” direction. Quite often, they’ve they cut the other way.
It’s stunning to see the way the we liberals continue accepting this practice. But that's just what we do.
Success in the afternoon: After the two “bridge workers” testified, Port Authority executive director Patrick Foye took his time on the stage.
It was Foye who ordered the lanes reopened on September 13. In his testimony, he spoke quite favorably of Bill Baroni, quite harshly about David Wildstein.
He also gave assembly members a talking point they had been seeking all day:
ASSEMBLYWOMAN STENDER (12/9/13): Okay. You said you’ve had a number of conversations with Mr. Baroni regarding this incident.“Thank you,” the assemblywoman said. We’ll guess she really meant it.
STENDER: Did he, at any time during those conversations, explain why this decision was made on the part of Wildstein to do these lane closures?
FOYE: Traffic study.
STENDER: And that was the best he could give you, or gave you, in terms of rationale for causing all of this?
FOYE: That was the rationale.
STENDER: Okay. You know there’s been a lot of speculation that these lane closures were done for political purpose because of the issues with the mayor in Fort Lee. And when you’ve had these conversations with Wildstein, did he make any reference to his decision having to have political purpose?
FOYE: So, Vice Chair, just to be clear, I’ve had no conversations with Wildstein. I’ve spoken with Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni. And the answer to your question is no.
STENDER: So you accepted their statement, their rationale that they put people at risk, and spent money, and created tremendous upheaval solely for the purpose of a traffic study?
FOYE: I don’t.
STENDER: You don’t. Why do you think they did it?
FOYE: I’m not aware of any traffic study. I don’t know why it was done.
STENDER: Thank you.
On several occasions, Foyre repeated his point; he “wasn’t aware of a traffic study.” No one asked him what he meant by that statement.
Did he mean there had been no written report? Was he disputing what Fulton and Durando said about the data collection? Was he saying the data collection had just been a hoax, a beard designed to hide Wildstein's real motive?
No one asked him what he meant. We’d say the reason was fairly obvious. Foye had stated the desired point. Why ruin a good thing by asking him what he meant?
In similar ways, folk like Zernike took their dictation from John McCain in September 2012.
According to McCain, Ambassador Rice had said all kinds of things about Benghazi, things she hadn’t actually said. But in that case, the “press corps” took their story lines from McCain. Rice was hurled to her death.
This is the way the process works. In that earlier case, folk like Zernike bowed to McCain. In this case, they bowed to assembly Dems, even transmitting the bogus claim about the high school friendship.
In each case, you’re handed a silly, simplified tale. You’re handed a prefab novel, the sort of simplified story these simple, empty heads like.
A lot of those stories have hurt liberals badly, but we just keep lapping them up. We leave the Zernikes in charge.