For years New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie was the media’s favorite portly, blunt, wise-cracking politician. But, in early January, what had seemed to be a benign traffic jam due to lane closings on the George Washington Bridge was revealed to be politically motivated revenge exacted by Christie’s top aides. Suddenly, tales of Christie administration strong arming and dirty tricks were national news. Bob speaks to Matt Katz about the shift in media coverage, and how Christie could emerge stronger than before the scandal.
BOB GARFIELD: For years, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was the media’s favorite portly, blunt wisecracking pol, a human sound bite, seemingly allergic to standard clichés and disingenuous political pieties. He was a can-do Republican willing to do business with Democrats, even the despised Barack Obama.
WOMAN: This was the longest, tightest bear hug that I’ve ever seen between Chris Christie and Barack Obama.
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BOB GARFIELD: Yes, in the aftermath of Super Storm Sandy, on the eve of a national election, he actually hugged the President. But Chris Christie has had a tough winter. In early January, what had seemed to be a benign traffic jam, due to lane closings on the George Washington Bridge, was revealed to be politically-motivated revenge. And suddenly, tales of Christie administration strong arming and dirty tricks were national news. Here’s NBC's Brian Williams in January.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: Emails have been released showing the traffic backup was the work, apparently, of members of Christie’s staff, among others, and that it was intentional and political, meant to make life difficult for a Democratic mayor on the Jersey side of the bridge.
BOB GARFIELD: Last week, New Jersey’s largest newspaper, the Newark Star-Ledger, recanted its 2013 endorsement of Christie months after the election. Clearly, Chris Christie's fortunes and his prospects for a 2016 presidential bid have changed dramatically. And so has his ‘til now masterly handling of the news media. Matt Katz of New Jersey Public Radio has been covering the governor since 2011. He wrote a recent article for Politico about his time with Christie, titled, “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close: The strange thrill of covering Chris Christie.”
In a December 2nd press conference, Katz became the first reporter to ask the Governor about the scandal now known as “Bridgegate.”
GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE: I worked the cones, actually, on that.
Unbenownst to everybody, I was actually the guy out there. I was in overalls and a hat. You really are not serious with that question.
MATT KATZ: He mocked me, which is something that those of us in the New Jersey Statehouse press corps are somewhat accustomed to.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, that was kind of a classic bit of Christie’s disarming humor, right? But it’s also kind of a turning point for him, wasn’t it, because until that moment he had been very much on the offensive. You say in a piece that you wrote in Politico about covering Christie that he wasn’t so much a news subject as a news organization [LAUGHS] in and of himself. How?
MATT KATZ: That’s right. He has a robust communications staff. They cut up clips of his speeches, of his comments to us at press conferences, and they email blast them out to every reporter who’s on their list, and then untold others, including the folks on MSNBC and Morning Joe.
JOE SCARBOROUGH: John Heilemann calls our show “Good Morning Trenton” because we love –
- Chris Christie so much around here.
MATT KATZ: They would in the morning about what Christie did yesterday because they got a direct email with a YouTube clip of the Governor, saying something sort of non-politician-like. And they loved him for it. He was able to win news cycles by determining what would constitute the sound bite of the day. And it was totally successful for almost four years.
BOB GARFIELD: In your Politico piece, you gave a very vivid example of how he was able to hijack any given daily news cycle. In his race for reelection against liberal Democrat Barbara Buono, she held a press conference to call attention to what she said was his sorry record on higher education.
BARBARA BUONO: Most people just want a chance. They just want an opportunity. And I find myself wondering, what would their lives be like, if they had had the opportunities that I had? But you know what? In Chris Christie's New Jersey, we’ll never find out –
- because this is a governor who is an opportunist, spending 2 million additional dollars on an ad campaign that features you at the Jersey shore. Now, I don’t know about you, but seeing Chris Christie frolicking on the beach is not gonna drive me to go to the shore. [LAUGHS]
MATT KATZ: At the very moment when Barbara Buono was trying to get her feet on the ground here and unveil her education proposal, he went off on her and basically accused her of making fun of his weight.
GOV. CHRISTIE: I think it’s really beneath the office that she’s seeking but I’ll put up with it now. It won’t change the way I feel about myself and about lots of other people who I represent in this state who face the similar challenge I’ve had in trying to control their weight and be in better shape.
[AUDIENCE APPLAUSE][END CLIP]
MATT KATZ: He gave a killer sound bite, and it blew her education proposal out of the water.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Matt Katz, if a media manipulator shows up in the forest and no media are there to be manipulated – see what I’m saying? Did he get a free pass from particularly the New Jersey media, through the sheer strength of his personality?
MATT KATZ: I don't think so at all. I mean, even if we were, frankly, wowed by how the head of the 11th biggest state in the country had become an absolutely national phenomenon, that didn't prevent the New Jersey media from not being as aggressive as possible on him. The national media, I think, is a different story.
BOB GARFIELD: Ah-ha, I want to ask you about that. In the introduction, I referred to a column in the Newark Star-Ledger essentially [LAUGHS] retracting its endorsement of the governor for his reelection. And there was this litany of governance failures by the Christie administration - education and infrastructure and redevelopment, and, and so on. My reaction to that was, whoa, really? And that’s because I’m a consumer mainly of national media. Are there two Chris Christies?
MATT KATZ: There are. There would be stories about politically- connected donors getting contracts for Sandy cleanup, in the Star-Ledger, for example. And then the next day he would be on Morning Joe or The Today Show, and he would be asked questions like, why are you the popular Republican in America?
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, now that was then, this is now. Has Christie lost control of the narrative?
MATT KATZ: They lost control of the narrative once Bridgegate started to lead to other stories that the national media globbed onto about abuse of power. The first big one after Bridgegate was the mayor of a town went to MSNBC and said that Christie officials tried to shake me down to approve a redevelopment deal. They were gonna take away my hurricane Sandy relief funds if I didn’t approve this deal.
MAYOR: I remember telling my inner circle, I, I can’t believe that I just received a direct threat from the governor of the State of New Jersey.
MATT KATZ: And once that happened, Team Christie totally lost control because now every story was viewed through this lens of abuse of power.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, the Christie media operation hasn’t gone away, it’s just changed tactics. What are they doin’ now?
MATT KATZ: Team Christie found themselves in a defensive crouch, when normally they’re always on the offensive. The New York Times has been particularly aggressive, and there was a story that came out that a key witness in this bridge scandal had evidence to indicate Christie created this traffic jam. This was the day before the Super Bowl was being played in New Jersey. This was Christie's big moment. And it stopped that cold, and it had a absolute seismic reaction throughout the news universe. The New York Times ended up changing its lead slightly and its headline.
The letter from this witness didn't say that he had evidence. It said evidence existed, which might seem like a slight difference, in some eyes but, in other eyes, including the Christie administration’s eyes, it seemed like a huge difference. They are making an accusation here that the Times is against them, and particularly this reporter. They're trying to set a precedent from now on that they are not going to take what the New York Times says seriously.
I also think there is something of a dog whistle to the right here. Christie has seen his numbers remain stable, in one place, and even inch up a little bit, and that's among conservatives who have a deep, deep distrust of the mainstream media and always thought that Christie was not one of them because he seemed to be beloved by places like MSNBC. And now, he's being put through the ringer by the New York Times.
Some Christie folks are hoping that maybe he emerges stronger because he's got street cred now, and he’s been vetted. There’s investigative reporters from all over the country in Trenton right now, digging through his past. Better it comes out now than right before the South Carolina primary.
BOB GARFIELD: Matt, thanks very much.
MATT KATZ: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Matt Katz covers Gov. Chris Christie for New Jersey Public Radio.