Part 1—Maddow versus the Times: What explains September’s lane closings at the George Washington Bridge?
On Thursday morning, the New York Times gave a definitive answer. It appeared in Kate Zernike’s news report, the featured report in the top right-hand corner of the newspaper’s front page.
Below, you see the way the news report started. According to Zernike, the truth about a “mystery” had finally been “revealed:”
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.Zernike’s exciting synopsis had a bit of everything. It included text messages from a wake and sneering remarks by a high school friend of the governor.
''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.
According to Zernike, those emails and texts had revealed the following fact or facts, thereby solving a mystery: A top aide to Governor Christie had “ordered the closings to punish the town's mayor after he did not endorse the governor for re-election.”
Truth to tell, those emails and texts did not establish that motive for the lane closings. At the top of the New York Times front page, Zernike was overstating what she knew.
Twelve hours later, Rachel Maddow showed that she understood that fact.
Right at the start of her program, Maddow speculated about a different possible motive. As she opened her program, she told viewers that she “may have an important new question to raise.”
She said she would explain it right now. In a bit of self-promotion, she said we’d only hear it from her.
The lane closing may not have been aimed at Sokolich, Maddow now declared:
MADDOW (1/9/14): This hour, on this show, we may have an important new question to raise about this big story about New Jersey. This is something you’ll only see here. It is a question we think should be out there in the middle of this discussion and I’m going to explain it to you right now.Maybe it wasn’t about the endorsement? We agree with that assessment. But that morning, at the top of page one, the New York Times had reported that the emails and texts “revealed” that it was!
The operating assumption to explain what happened in the Chris Christie bridge scandal is that this whole thing came about because of political retaliation for the Fort Lee mayor refusing to endorse Governor Christie, and so his town of Fort Lee had to pay the price. He didn’t endorse, and so Fort Lee had to be punished.
The governor refuted that assumption today by saying, yes, I wanted endorsements but this one in Fort Lee was not a high-stakes thing for us. We didn’t even try hard for it. I didn’t even meet the guy. Why do you think my side would flip out so outrageously and bring the hammer down like this for not getting this one endorsement? One in a zillion of them.
You know, and we don’t just have to take Christie’s word for it. The mayor of Fort Lee himself, Mark Sokolich, has also indicated that although he thinks he was maybe asked to endorse, it wasn’t sort of short sharp shock. It wasn’t any massive pressure campaign to get him onboard. He barely even remembers it.
Maybe it wasn’t about the endorsement. Maybe it was something else special about Fort Lee.
Maddow went on to present a theory about what might have occurred. When we say this theory was half-baked, we’re overstating the amount of the cooking.
Tomorrow, we’ll review that theory, which we weirdly decided to fact-check. But for today, let’s note a basic way in which Maddow was right last Thursday night—and let’s draw the obvious conclusion.
When she presented her new theory, Maddow was observing an obvious fact. The emails and texts released on Wednesday did not “reveal” the motivation for the September lane closings in any definitive way.
Zernike was working from twenty-two pages of emails and texts, a very small part of a massively larger cache. Most of those messages were highly cryptic. Zernike didn’t say who had selected those particular emails and texts for release.
(“The documents were obtained by The New York Times and other news outlets Wednesday,” Zernike wrote. Obtained from whom? Sphinx-like, she didn’t say.)
Maddow was right on one major point. Those emails and texts actually hadn’t established the fact that the closings were designed “to punish the town’s mayor after he did not endorse the governor for re-election.”
(Just for the record: The previous night, January 8, Maddow had said that the emails and texts did establish that motivation. One night later, Maddow was disagreeing with the New York Times and with her own prior statements.)
In the first paragraph its front-page reporting, the New York Times had gotten ahead of the facts. But then, what else is new? This has been the pattern for decades whenever we see story grow.
A point of personal privilege concerning the love of good stories:
When we were young, our mother and our beloved aunts used to love their “stories.”
That’s what they called them—their “stories.” They followed their stories with care.
Later, when we were 23 or 24, a friend of ours got a major part in one of those major soap operas. At one point, he expressed his surprise—on the streets of New York, people would stop him, apparently thinking he was the person he portrayed on that TV show.
For at least the past four decades, our political discourse has been driven by a similar array of arresting stories. “Muskie wept,” we were all told, way back in ’72.
Quite routinely, these stories have turned out to be wrong. All too often, major organs like the New York Times have played leading roles in creating these bogus tales.
Please note: Once a story like this gains traction, it’s almost never corrected or reversed. Even if it turns out to be wrong, the public never quite learns that.
At present, anyone who follows the press has a wonderful anthropological opportunity. All week long, we will review the ongoing coverage of the lane closings in Fort Lee.
Zernike said that a mystery had been solved. As usual, though, the Times was wrong, right there in its very first paragraph.
That said, many people have gotten out over their skis in the past week; we’d include Maddow among them. The ongoing spectacle lets us review a familiar process—the process by which story grows.
Tomorrow: Maddow’s theory
More of what Maddow said: Zernike said the emails and texts “revealed” that the closings were designed to punish Sokolich for his refusal to endorse.
Simply put, that wasn’t the case. The emails and texts didn’t establish that motivation.
Plainly, Maddow understood that. Here’s a bit more of what she said that night:
MADDOW (1/9/14): The only explanation anyone has about why she did do it, why the Christie administration destroyed Fort Lee for a week back in September, is the endorsements issue, the mayor’s endorsement.In fact, Maddow did a very poor job questioning Sokolich about that point. Beyond that, she paraphrased him very poorly in the first passage we posted above.
And the governor went out of his way and fairly convincingly quashed that issue today [at his lengthy press conference]. He basically said that wasn’t it. Maybe you don’t believe him, but it seems like a fairly convincing case, particularly given the mayor’s side of that case.
We’re going to have Mayor Sokolich on the show live tonight. We can ask him about it when he’s here. But if it wasn’t the endorsement question that motivated the people who did this to Fort Lee, what was it?
(Maddow never explained why she assumed that Sokolich had been truthful in the things he had said about not being approached for an endorsement. Unless the Times has bungled again, his story now seems to have changed.)
Were the lane closings designed to punish Sokolich for his failure to endorse? Plainly, Maddow didn’t think that motivation had been established by those emails and texts.
Concerning that point, we’d say she was right. In the next few days, liberal organs hailed her for presenting her alternate theory, as we’ll note tomorrow.
The New York Times’ front-page reporting was wrong. At least since 1992 (Whitewater!), this pattern has routinely obtained when we’ve seen story grow.