Part 3—Maddow’s sleight of hand: Journalists say the darnedest things when story starts to grow.
Last night, near the end of Piers Morgan Live, the CNN import said this:
MORGAN (1/14/14): Well, I suppose the obvious thing that struck me with all this, and I've always been a big fan of Chris Christie's, interviewed him several times and find him extremely impressive character in many ways…Morgan has always been a big fan of Chris Christie! Still, he’s troubled to think that “the busiest bridge in the world [was] brought to an absolute standstill for a whole week.”
What could be a bigger issue to the governor than to have the busiest bridge in the world brought to an absolute standstill for a whole week? And yet in that week, he appears to have done absolutely nothing to try and find out why this is going on or do something to stop it. And if he had done, he may have unearthed some of the reality of what was behind it.
Does Morgan actually think that’s what happened? You might dismiss that as a slip of the tongue or as a weirdly careless formulation. But many journalists and pundits seem to think that traffic was somehow stopped on the bridge itself in the course of this high-profile affair.
Morgan offered that peculiar account during the 9 P.M. hour. One hour later, speaking with Lawrence, Charlie Cook said this:
COOK (1/14/14): The fact is that there was an environment, a culture in the office that convinced some high level people to think that there was OK and acceptable. That sort of is enough. I mean, and that’s, you know—to me, that’s probably more likely than Christie said, “Hey, shut down five lanes or three lanes or whatever on the bridge.”“Shut down five lanes or three lanes or whatever on the bridge?” That isn’t as odd as what Morgan said, but it’s still weirdly inaccurate.
We’ve seen many journalists describe the high-profile events in Fort Lee in ways which suggest that they may not have the slightest idea what occurred. But so what? As we’ve told and shown you for years, modern journalism is all about knowing the script—the story-line.
When a Standard Story emerges, the actual facts don’t matter that much. Neither does simple logic.
We were struck by several things Rachel Maddow said last night. Let’s start with this—for the second straight night, she went into raptures about how much she loves this story:
MADDOW (1/13/14): I can’t believe this story! I can’t believe I’ve talked about this story this much and it all makes me want to talk about it more. It’s fascinating stuff.Why does Maddow love this story? We can’t tell you, although we could take a couple of guesses.
MADDOW (1/14/14): God, I love this story! Joining us now is Frank Rich, New York magazine writer-at-large. Frank, thanks for being here.
That said, this “story” has been great for ratings at Maddow’s channel, where the journalists aren’t big fans of Christie. This Monday night, Maddow scored 1.173 million viewers in the 9 P.M. hour.
The previous Monday, before it got good? 616,000!
As we’ve noted, Maddow has gotten a major point right about the story she loves. On Monday, she aggressively noted a basic fact: we don’t yet know the motive for the Christie team’s very strange actions.
In other ways, Maddow has wandered the countryside, floundering as she goes. Last Thursday night, she built a new theory about the Christie team’s motive around Mark Sokolich’s statement that no one even asked him for an endorsement of Christie.
In Monday morning’s New York Times, Sokolich seemed to have changed his story. Instead of reporting that fact to her viewers, Maddow simply cited the mayor’s new claim, acting as if nothing had happened.
She failed to report that a basic part of the story seems to have changed, even though she had stressed the mayor’s previous claim just two programs before.
Whatever! As we’ve demonstrated for years, facts and logic tend to disappear when story grows. In the case of a story like this, all presentations will be tilted to prove the guilt of the accused.
Kill the pig! Down through the annals of time, we humans have always loved such episodes, which we’ve pursued as if in a fever. Once a target has been selected, everything will be used to demonstrate his or her obvious guilt.
Once they’ve become Official Targets, ridiculous bullroar will be advanced against the innocent and the guilty. Consider a presentation Maddow made in last night’s opening segment.
Can we talk? Maddow didn’t have much last night, and so she killed time picking nits. In the chunk which follows, she was helping us see one of the ways the current pig has supposedly lied.
It may well be that Christie did lie in the clips Maddow presented, all of which came from last Thursday’s press conference.
In those short, tightly edited clips, Christie said that he wasn’t even aware of Mayor Sokolich until last week. He says he didn’t know the mayor’s name. He says he didn’t know what the mayor looked like.
That may or may not be true. That said, these are the clips Maddow presented, with all edits noted:
MADDOW (1/14/14): Here’s the other part of this that makes no sense, against the governor’s description of what happened here and why nobody should believe that he was involved.Are those claims by Christie true? We don’t know the answer.
Remember, Governor Christie’s defense, in part, is that this sort of thing, this shutdown of the bridge, couldn’t have been done to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, because Governor Christie says he didn’t even know who the mayor of Fort Lee was. He couldn’t pick him out of a lineup. This guy was not on his radar.
Pick your metaphor for “I don’t know the guy,” Governor Christie has insisted on it:
CHRISTIE: The other part of this that just shocks me is, as I’ve said to you all many times before, Mayor Sokolich was never on my radar screen.
CHRISTIE: I don’t remember ever meeting Mayor Sokolich. Until I saw his picture last night on television, I wouldn’t have been able to pick him out of a lineup.
REPORTER: Did anyone say to you, “The mayor of Fort Lee, he’s going with your opponent?”
CHRISTIE: He never—his name was never mentioned to me. His position was never mentioned to me.
CHRISTIE: I never heard the Fort Lee mayor’s name, Mark Sokolich, his name, until all this stuff happened. And so he was not on my radar screen at all. Plenty of other mayors were.
CHRISTIE: I don’t even know this guy.
CHRISTIE: I mean, I don’t know this guy.
CHRISTIE: But I’m telling you, until yesterday when I saw his picture on TV, I wouldn’t—if he walked in a room, I wouldn’t have been able to pick him out.
That said, Maddow seemed to know the basic rule of story—Christie simply has to be lying, about every single point. Note the way logic flies out the door as Maddow starts to “prove” her point to her unfortunate viewers.
We’ve just seen Christie say, again and again, that he didn’t even know who the mayor of Fort Lee was. As she continues, note the way Maddow quickly expands his statement:
MADDOW (continuing directly): That’s a big part of the governor’s defense. I’ve never heard of this guy! Nobody’s ever heard of this guy! Why would anybody bother to try to hurt this guy who nobody’s heard of in his town that nobody’s ever heard of? Right?Actually, wrong! In that ridiculous sleight of hand, Maddow changes the scope of Christie’s statements. Just like that, she has his claiming that nobody had heard of Sokolich—not just him, no one at all!
No one on his whole staff!
Just like that, Maddow expanded the scope of what Christie said. And sure enough! As she continued, she demonstrated that various members of Christie’s staff did know who Sokolich was.
That isn’t what Christie denied. But this is the way her exposition started:
MADDOW (fuller text): That’s a big part of the governor’s defense. I’ve never heard of this guy! Nobody’s ever heard of this guy! Why would anybody bother to try to hurt this guy who nobody’s heard of in his town that nobody’s ever heard of? Right?At some length, Maddow goes on to prove that several of Christie’s staffers knew who Sokolich was. This is somehow taken to mean that the string of statements by Christie “makes no sense.”
But then, look at the first line of this e-mail sent from two of the governor’s top staffers, while the shutdown was still under way. Look!...
If you’re curious about this familiar process, we’ll suggest that you watch Maddow’s full segment or that you read the full transcript (click this). Perhaps you can tease a logic from this which has completely escaped us.
In our view, Maddow’s points aren’t entirely clear as she continues from here. Eventually, she plays tape of another short statement by Christie from Thursday’s press conference:
MADDOW: The governor’s spokesman, the governor’s campaign manager, the governor’s chief of staff, his top two appointees at the Port Authority, an aide to the governor, governor’s new chief of staff, director of departmental relations, they’re all in the loop on this crisis while it’s still under way and immediately thereafter.That statement by Christie may be wrong, although it isn’t entirely clear, from the transcript of the press conference, what he actually meant in the short exchange in question. (He had already stated that Bridget Kelly “was involved in this matter.”)
CHRISTIE (videotape): There was nobody on my staff who had any knowledge of this issue until after the issue was already done.
MADDOW: That is not true. Provably not true.
That statement by Christie may be wrong, depending on what it actually meant. But that has nothing to do with the string of statements in which he said that he didn’t know the mayor’s name or what the mayor looked like.
Those statements by Christie were played last night as part of a very familiar dog-and-pony kill-the-pig show. We’ve described such episodes time and again over the past fifteen years as the “press corps” has staged its various pogroms—ugly wars which have been aimed at the guilty and at the innocent, though mostly at the latter.
Before this site began, Gene Lyons described such episodes from the Clinton years in Fools For Scandal, an important book the career liberal world knew it had to ignore.
And no, it wasn’t just Maddow! Last night, Chris Matthews was saying the darnedest things too, as he has done for decades now. Chris was defending his new lady love, the deeply misused Bridget Kelly, just as he did long ago in the case of Gennifer Flowers and the adored Kathleen Willey.
We’ll look at his clowning tomorrow. Chris has been saying the darnedest things for a very long time.
Was Christie telling the truth last week? Assuming New Jersey Democrats know how to conduct an investigation, a great deal of information will surely emerge at some point.
But when a Group Story starts to grow, our journalists aren’t willing to wait. Beyond that, they may not be willing to focus on the most basic parts of the emerging story.
The fact that Sokolich changed his story ought to be fully reported. So should the fact that Wildstein and them were at least pretending to conduct a traffic study.
Was that a real study, or just a pretense? We can’t tell you why they did the things they did that week, but the fact that they did them should be reported and fully explored. At some point, it may help untangle the actual point of their very peculiar conduct, which Maddow has correctly said remains unexplained, undefined.
People like Maddow don’t think like that. They’re being paid to help story grow, and they may feel true belief.
Matthews way back when: In August 1999, Matthews brought Gennifer Flowers on the air to discuss the Clintons’ many murders and their ridiculous marriage.
She guested for the first half hour of Hardball. Eventually, lover boy said this:
MATTHEWS (8/2/99): Well, you know, I gotta, I gotta pay a little tribute here. You're a very beautiful woman, and I—and I have to tell you, he knows that, you know that, and everybody watching knows that; Hillary Clinton knows that. How can a woman put up with a relationship between her husband and somebody, anybody, but especially somebody like you that's a knockout? I don't quite get this relationship.Flowers wasn’t even East Coast Irish Catholic. Warning: Kelly is!