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.

''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.
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.

That said:

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.


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.
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!

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.

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?
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.

(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.


  1. Oh, deary! Last week, Sokolich was Malala and King. Now he's another politician who changes his story.

  2. Malala and King were models of restraint in the face of provocation. That hasn't changed about Sokolich. But this is, of course, a complaint about Somerby. Look how early his detractors get up to do their dirty work here.

    1. Yes, those damned Somerby detractors. They get up right after he sneaks onto his vast campus, greets his analysts, and posts Part 1 of a new series he has already written at what seems like five posts about.

      What chaps me is his defenders now take a DOZEN minutes to respond. That is slower than Ft. Lee EMS on a day with toll access closures on the George Washington Bridge.

    2. The trolls will be here all day and evening. Unlike them, I will go to work and only read this blog later this evening, after dinner. It gives the trolls the appearance of some sort of consensus, because they post constantly using a variety of names, but people with real lives don't have all day to type nonsense in blog comments.

    3. Let us hope no blogger closes access lanes on your way to work. Better leave early.

    4. Think of me out earning those big bucks while you sit at home in your pajamas sweating over the keyboard.

    5. Actually I am thinking of you being on the west coast with a fairly generous start time at your job.

    6. And with sunshine!

  3. Try to keep up, Bob:

    1. Kornacke's one-man theory. Impartial observer that he is.

    2. But is it "possible"?

      Or must we all dismiss the message out of hand because you don't like the messenger?

    3. There are any number of plausible revenge fantasies one might come up with to explain this, especially if you concoct them by looking at who was hurt. For example, maybe this was all aimed at that poor lady who died. It doesn't make them true. Kornacki has the advantage of being from NJ, experienced in politics and truly acquainted with Wildstein. It doesn't make his theories correct.

    4. Nor do they disprove them out of hand.

      Look, the whole "Nobody is this stupid" excuse when no good rationalization for documented stupidity also gave Nixon a couple of extra years in office.

      "What possible reason could he have for trying to cover up the a third-rate burglarly? Nixon isn't that stupid!"

      It now appears that SIX DAYS AFTER this fiasco, the State Senator from Ft. Lee copied Christie on a letter she sent to a Port Authority commissioner she knew from Bergen County, asking him to look into it, and he replied that he would. Silence from the guy since then.

      I suppose Christie will say his conniving staff hid the letter from him, in their plot to keep him in the dark for weeks.

    5. Have you ever heard of due process? Nixon resigned when the existence of the tapes emerged -- because they proved his knowledge and involvement. Up until then there was insufficient evidence to impeach him. Back in those days, those silly congresspeople thought they needed evidence of wrongdoing, not just suspicions and accusations from partisans and enemies.

      You cannot assume malfeasance until you've ruled out simple incompetence. On what basis can you assume Christie reads or even sees every letter someone cc's him on? He is Governor of a large state with presumably a lot of business going on. Wouldn't anyone just leave it up to the person addressed (the commisioner) to check into it and then forget about it in the press of other business. This matter is only earthshaking because of the revenge angle. People complaining about inconvenience due to traffic back ups following legitimate or illegitimate studies don't get much attention, especially after the fact -- what is he supposed to do about it after it has already happened? It is only the accusation of revenge motive that makes anyone care about this, and that isn't going to give this much salience with Christie. So your comment makes no sense.

    6. "Nixon resigned when the existence of the tapes emerged . . ."

      You would have been technically correct if you said Nixon resigned AFTER the existence of the tapes emerged.

      But Alexander Butterfield told Sam Ervin's committee that Nixon taped all conversations on July 13, 1973.

      Nixon resigned on Aug. 8, 1974.

  4. Wow! Bob went to college with Tommie Lee Jones! Gosh, what a glamorous youth he had...Now if only that were in some way relevant to his crackpot ramblings on how there's nothing scandalous about what the NJ Gov. has already admitted was scandalous.

    1. That, and to reinforce his notion that SOME people stopped his buddy on the street mistaking him for the soap character he played, that means MANY (if not all) people are that stupid, and willing to believe any "story" they hear.

      And they need the far more brilliant, analytical mind of Somerby to set them straight.

    2. Every soap star has had this experience.

    3. It even happened to Dorothy Michaels.

  5. If you put on your pointy-headed professor hat, all the following can be questioned

    Witches were burnt in Salem
    Lizzie Borden took an axe…
    Edison Invented the Lightbulb
    “Let them eat Cake”
    Nero Fiddled while Rome Burned

    An Italian American friend claims Meucci invented the Telephone.

    In the age of the internet, we can easily Google to check if Muskie wept or not. The blogger has become irrelevant.

    There is no malice involved - thats just the way normal people misremember things.

    Any decent person would issue a mea culpa for

    the massively ginned-up controversy about lane closings at the George Washington Bridge and Christie’s so far non-existent role in same


    Maddow’s rather dishonest program:


    Losers, guess what? The volume of traffic on the bridge has nothing to do with this story. Traffic across the bridge was not affected, only access to the bridge from the town of Fort Lee.


    Instead blogger is misdirecting furiously because reporters are putting the picture together in real time. There is no "contradiction" - there are now several theories of why this was done - but a public-minded traffic study this is not - but the blogger has put it out there that this was "bungling" and nothing more.

    1. Has TDH considered that the reason people are still searching for answers is that from the first day there has not been a rational forthcoming explanation from the people responsible for this inexplicable, unprecendented and dangerous action they took?
      This is really a very simple matter and it shouldn't take four months and counting plus numerous subpoenas to get a straight answer.

      Christie has no one to blame but himself for this thing still being front page news. The media didn't invent the story, and this have absolutely nothing to do with media narratives or scripts.

    2. This would never have mattered if Christie wasn't the object of press attention because he might run for President. Or if it happened on something other than the busiest bridge in the whole wide world. I learned the latter fact from coverage of this story by Maddow and Somerby!

  6. At this point, blogger is simply grasping at straws. He knows the party is over. I don't see this blog lasting more than a few weeks. And his hopes for covering 2016 are all but over.

    1. At this point troll is still trolling. He knows this blog's history. I don't see this trolling ending after several years. Troll's hopes for trolling here through 2016 and beyond are all but certain.

  7. "It will be a tough November for this little Serbian." Wildestein to Christie's campaign manager. Who was he referring to? Slobodan Milošević ?

    1. Probably not. Milosevic was 6" 1." Even run-of-the-mill Jersey pol know this.

    2. That would be 6' 1". Otherwise he would be a Lilliputian, not a Serbian.

    3. Has anyone actually looked for some Serbian in this situation, instead of assuming this remark was aimed at the Croatian mayor? Maybe the guys behind that billion dollar project are Serbs?

  8. OMB (Massively Ginned-Up and Loaded for BOB)

    "At any rate, our discourse has been awash in such narratives over the past twenty years. They have often turned out to be wrong."

    OTB, today.

    We have agreed with BOB many times throughout this massively ginned-up controversy he and we have all enjoyed so thoroughly.*

    We return to agree once again, now that BOB has delivered on his tease from his last post on this MGUC (Massively Ginned-Up Controversy. We, of course like acronyms too in this age of what Al took the initiative to create). We agree with the above statement.

    The NYTimes reporter Zernike (Is she a young scribe? Experienced on this topic? Educated at the right colleges?) reported the e-mails showed something they clearly did not show.

    What is worse, Rachel Maddow, that perspiring self pleasuring pundit, has changed theories in a manner quite contradictory.

    But, as fits the narrative of the King of Zarkon, so has your BOBship.

    Let's borrow from a comment above:

    "Losers, guess what? The volume of traffic on the bridge has nothing to do with this story. Traffic across the bridge was not affected, only access to the bridge from the town of Fort Lee."

    BOB Dec. 16

    "Presumably, that means that the northbound traffic jam ended 45 minutes early on I-95, due to the reduced interference from cars cutting in from Fort Lee."

    BOB Jan. 11

    We, of course, did not agree with one of the two statements above, and noted as much in real time. We will note here they are contradictory. We will also note they served BOB's narrative at the time.

    BOB has yet to note this. Is he acting in good faith? We don't know.
    Is he out over his skis on this one? Only a very long series full of teases will tell. Watch this space.

    We do know one thing. Some of the "losers" who watch Maddow will never pause to ponder if she is just trying to pump up her plump bank account.


    * We base this statement on the increased volume of commentary,
    which Sunday spilled over to a second page we could never access
    or see.

  9. "Maddow never explained why she assumed that Sokolich had been truthful"

    Perhaps she sensed about the mayor an air of Martin Luther King, of Malala Yousafzai, of Ghandi?

    1. Why hasn't Maddow reported on the murder rate in Newark?
      Is it because she is a close classmate friend of Cory Booker
      or because she hates black kids?

    2. Good question, in my opinion.

      Why hasn't her staff done any investigative work beyond reading some heavily redacted emails? Why doesn't she think about what she reports and identify the inconsistencies instead of furthering the party line? When does her doctorate in political science actually inform her reporting?

    3. Why aren't you at work yet?

    4. Still in your pajamas, I see.

  10. The Howler above:

    "(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.)

    According to the NBC News transcript, this is what Maddow actually said on January 8:

    "We do not know what caused Governor Christie`s office to unleash this hell on the town of Fort Lee. It`s previously been suggested that the mayor of Fort Lee refused to endorse Governor Christie`s bid for re-
    election at the time when the governor was specifically looking for those endorsements from Democratic local officials. Was the mayor`s refusal to provide that endorsement the reason the governor`s office ordered up some traffic problems in Fort Lee? We still do not know that."

    I hope this is nothing more than extreme carelessness, and that TDH has not been reduced to outright lying about what Maddow said. Will an apology at least to his readers be forthcoming? That would be the normal, decent thing to do. Unfortunately, I think the answer is no, never.

    1. Legend, for an entire month, Somerby has been pimping the lie that Maddow has reached far beyond the evidence to conclusions that were unwarranted, without linking to a single thing she said that would back that up.

      You can see his loyal followers, what few remain, continue to pimp that line.

      It wasn't true then, it wasn't true now.

      Thank you for pulling what Maddow actually said on Jan. 8, so we can compare that to Somerby's version. And again, he is making baseless accusations.

      His fixation on Rachel Maddow is becoming extremely bizarre, and he will go to any length to feed it.

    2. Each time he has stated which portions of Maddow's transcript went beyond the facts. Somerby always provides evidence for his claims about people. He cites their statements and explains what's wrong with them. YOU are lying about his lying.

      Your statement that he is fixated on Maddow is humorous given his latest preoccupation with Ravitch, Ripley, Hayes and others. Maddow has been ignored for a good portion of the last month.

    3. Yes, and one of the Maddow quotes back in December when he was claiming this was "ginned up" was her saying this story "MAY" get bigger!

      He went on to call her all sorts of un-Malala, un-King, un-Gandhi names because of that egregious reach, far beyond the evidence known to her at the time. Which included, but is not limited to:

      1. The resignations of the two of the top Christie appointees to the Port Authority.

      2. The scathing e-mail from Foye, reported in detail two months earlier by the Wall Street Journal.