How journalists deal with such matters: Mayor Sokolich has pretty much changed his story again.
The mayor’s latest story may be perfectly accurate. But in what follows, we’ll look at the way journalists react to such matters.
In what way has Sokolich changed his story? Back in January, Sokolich, the mayor of Fort Lee, made a point of telling Wolf Blitzer that he had never been asked to endorse Governor Christie—or at least, it seemed that was what the mayor said.
“I’ve said it many times,” the mayor said to Blitzer:
BLITZER (1/8/14): So take us into this feud that was going. Did they really expect you, a Democrat, to endorse the Republican candidate's re-election, Chris Christie?He made it sound like you’d have to stretch to interpret preceding events as “somehow” attracting him to endorse. One night later, citing that statement, Rachel Maddow developed a whole new theory about the possibly motivation for the lane closings.
SOKOLICH: I guess. You know, I've said this many times. I don't recall a specific request to endorse. But, you know, the events that led up to all of this, I guess you can interpret to be somehow attracting me to endorse. I didn't want to endorse for several reasons, not the least of, which is I’m a Democrat. I was supportive of Ms. Buono. I wasn't prepared to do that.
On January 13, the story seemed to change. On that day, the New York Times ran a 2800-word, front-page overview of the Fort Lee matter.
Right at the start of N.R. Kleinfield’s report, Sokolich seemed to be telling a different story:
KLEINFIELD (1/13/14): One day last spring...a member of Gov. Chris Christie's re-election campaign staff came calling to see if Mr. Sokolich, a Democrat, would endorse the governor, a Republican. There was scant doubt that Mr. Christie would win. But his ambition was to win big...As we noted at the time, that sounded like a different story than the one Sokolich had told Blitzer just five days before.
Mr. Sokolich, however, was noncommittal. ''I said, 'Yes, I'll consider it, because I'll consider anything,' '' he recalled.
He chewed it over with local council members and two objections arose: It would be rude to State Senator Barbara Buono, the Democratic candidate for governor, and they were miffed at Mr. Christie for his decision to spend millions of dollars to hold a special election to fill New Jersey's vacant United States Senate seat three weeks before Election Day.
And so the mayor let the request go. ''I never called and said no, I never called and said yes,'' said Mr. Sokolich, who would not name the official who had reached out to him. ''I think they interpreted my response to that conversation to be a no.''
This past weekend, the story seemed to change again. In the Bergen County Record, Mike Kelly reported a two-hour interview with the mayor.
Unless Kelly was misrepresenting his story, Sokolich now seemed to say that he had been asked to endorse Christie “on at least three occasions:”
KELLY (2/8/14): Sokolich said efforts to gain his endorsement began nearly two years ago...According to Kelly, Sokolich added the following: “Some people might interpret that as a direct request. I don’t. I always viewed it as a gradual courting. I always viewed it as a way to ask so that there was always plausible deniability.”
He said Matt Mowers, a political operative for the Christie campaign—who had previously worked in the governor’s intergovernmental affairs office, which was the chief liaison to towns—would meet with him and tell him about other Democrats who endorsed Christie. On at least three occasions, Sokolich said that Mowers brought up the subject of Sokolich’s possible endorsement.
“He would say, ‘What are your thoughts?’ ” Sokolich said of Mowers. “He would say, ‘What do you think?’ Or he would say, “Is this something you would consider?’ ”
Please. In the real world, all people would interpret that as a request for an endorsement. After a separate interview with the mayor, David Voreacos of Bloomberg News quoted him saying this:
VOREACOS (2/7/14): “I was never asked directly to endorse” Christie, Sokolich said. “It was always conversations, like ‘Hey, this mayor endorsed Governor Christie, and this mayor jumped over and endorsed Governor Christie, this county executive who’s a Democrat endorsed Governor Christie.”Earth to mayor: When Mowers said, “Is that something you might want to do?” that was very much like a direct request.
“That would ultimately lead to a conversation like, ‘Is that something, you, mayor, would consider?’ or ‘What’s on your mind? Is that something you might want to do?,’” he said. “I never viewed it as a direct request. I always viewed it as an attempt to maintain plausible deniability in case I said no. I never specifically said no, because, you know, I didn’t want to disappoint the guy that was asking the question.”
Unless we want to play verbal games, Sokolich seems to have changed his story since he made that apparent denial to Blitzer—a denial which seemed so strong that it inspired Maddow to act.
You can torture the mayor’s statements to say that he hasn’t changed his story. But by the normal rules of the game, torture is what it would take.
Please note: This doesn’t mean that Sokolich’s current story is false. It may be that Mowers did bring up the subject of Sokolich’s possible endorsement on at least three occasions, asking if that was something he might want to do.
The current account may well be perfectly accurate. For today, we want you to notice something about the way the contemporary “press corps” reacts when the basic thrust of a story changes or seems to change.
Below, you see two basic principles of modern scandal journalism:
First rule: If the anointed “good guy” in some scandal seems to pretty much change his story, the press corps will struggle not to notice that fact.
Second rule: The rules are completely different for one of the press corps’ targeted pols. In that case, journalists will break their backs to report that the target has changed his tale.
In the past week, we’ve seen both principles enacted as journalists report, or pretend to report, the Fort Lee matter.
Last week, Rachel Maddow was torturing facts and language to insist that Christie, the targeted pol in the case, had “completely changed his story” about one part of this piece—that something he said last Monday night “directly contradicted” things he had said in the past.
That was a monumental stretch, a point we’ll return to in the next day or two. Meanwhile, consider the way Sokolich has been treated as his own story seems to evolve.
On September 13, Kleinfield led his front-page report in the Times with a passage in which the mayor seemed to change his story for the first time. But Kleinfield took no note of this apparent change, and neither did anyone else.
Kleinfield didn’t mention what Sokolich had said to Blitzer the previous week. He didn’t seem to have asked Sokolich about that previous statement.
Last Saturday, Kelly of the Bergen Record reported yet another account of this matter. He now quoted Sokolich saying that he had been asked about endorsing Christie “on at least three occasions.”
Kelly reported that the Christie administration had accused Sokolich of changing his story. But he didn’t report what Sokolich originally said to Blitzer, and he didn’t ask Sokolich to explain the ways his story had seemed to evolve.
Beyond that, we note the reaction of Steve Kornacki on last Friday night’s Maddow Show. To her credit, Maddow noted the apparent drift in the mayor’s story as the Bergen Record and Bloomberg reports appeared on-line.
Note what Kornacki said:
MADDOW (2/7/14): The other thing that broke tonight, Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich says he once met with Governor Christie for dinner. He also says he was courted for his endorsement of the governor’s re-election more significantly than he has said before. What do you make of these tonight?Kornacki is certainly right on one point. These new interviews don’t prove that the lane closings were caused by Sokolich’s failure to endorse.
KORNACKI: So yes, I’m seeing a lot of headlines that are portraying this as, like, you know, “Sokolich is changing his story,” or “Sokolich is now saying this was about endorsement,” as if this mystery as has been solved by what Mark Sokolich says and this is going to be. I don’t see it.
I look closely at this interview and I think the mystery lives on past this interview, because what you have here is Mark Sokolich has said before. He’s talked about Matt Mowers, who’s one of the campaign aides to Chris Christie, back in the spring, saying, “Hey, there are Democratic mayors endorsing Governor Christie. Is it something you might be interested in doing?”
He’s talked in the past how he strung them along, didn’t say no, didn’t say yes, told them how hard it would be. He’s talked in the past about the friendly gestures that Bill Baroni made for him, you know, for Fort Lee, providing certain things for Fort Lee. He talked to me before about David Wildstein meeting him at Ground Zero when he brought family members and saying, “I’m here to treat you very well.”
What he would always say was, you know, “I’m the kind of guy who, you know, as all these things were happening, I wasn’t necessarily putting them together. Now in hindsight when I put them all together, I can see they may have been trying to cultivate me. They may have been inspecting an endorsement. I may not have been reading it, you know, the same way.”
But what doesn’t add up, you ask him about this, he still says he doesn’t have an explanation for this, that memo. "Time for some traffic in Fort Lee" goes out in August. You’re looking for a triggering event.
What was going on in August? Did Matt Mowers ask you a bunch of times? Mayor Sokolich, did Matt Mowers ask you in that span about the endorsement? He says, no, months before that. Can you think of anything in August that might have triggered that e-mail? He can’t think of anything that went out that might have triggered that.
That said, Kornacki also was working quite hard to say that Sokolich hasn’t changed his story. This courteous treatment is routinely extended to the good guys, or to the accusers, in a scandal event.
Has Mayor Sokolich changed his story? We’d say he pretty much has.
That doesn’t mean that his story is false. His recent statements may well be perfectly accurate. Indeed, we’re not asking you to judge Sokolich or Christie today. We’re asking you to understand the way the “press corps” works when scandal culture grips the soul.
Here's how the “press corps” functions:
They’ll bust their keisters to insist that the “good guy” or the accuser hasn’t changed his story. Meanwhile, they’ll con you fifty ways to Christmas to insist that the target pol has.
This is the way the “press corps” works. This has been their approach to scandal reporting going back decades now.