The New Jersey Legislature’s enormous volume of correspondence released over the Chris Christie bridge scandal gave the media more than a thousand pages of homework to pore over through the weekend.
Overall, media outlets covered the documents in a way that best benefitted their agendas.
Accusations have been flying since late September that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie may have issued an order to punish the city of Fort Lee by closing the lanes of the George Washington Bridge that give that town access to New York. The George Washington Bridge is the most trafficked bridge in the country, and closing even as much as one lane would have caused something of a traffic disaster. As it stands, the “traffic study” that Christie’s aides were revealed to have ordered caused most commuters up to four-hour delays on the first week of school and hindered the work of many emergency response services. On Thursday, Governor Christie held a two-hour press conference apologizing for the scandal and disavowing any responsibility for it.
Then came the document dump. On Friday, the New Jersey legislature commenced its investigative hearings on the matter once again, and released thousands of documents ranging from the “traffic study” itself to emails between Christie staffers and Port Authority individuals, private letters from the Mayor of Fort Lee and the Executive Director of the Port Authority, and writings of others who knew or were involved somehow with the affair. What various media outlets chose to highlight from this collection demonstrates both a resolve to implicate Christie at all costs in the mess and, in the cases of some liberal outlets, to make a hero out of Executive Director of the Port Authority Patrick Foye and exacerbate the villainy of core Christie staffers David Wildstein and Bridget Kelly.
Among most media outlets, the most discussed correspondence by far was the private email from Executive Director Foye canceling the “traffic study,” a scathing rebuke of the occurrence in which Foye says the logistics and general behavior of those involved “appalled” him. CNN’s article on the document dump’s highlights leads with Foye’s letter in a bullet-pointed summary of the affair. Reuters, MSNBC, and The New York Times all do the same, though making the tension between Foye and the Christie staffers and Port Authority officials who closed the bridge the key takeaway from the documents.
The New York Times approaches the story with a very strong emphasis on “the internal strife the lane closings set off within the Port Authority, ultimately pitting the executive director, Patrick J. Foye, who was appointed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, against officials from New Jersey appointed by Mr. Christie,” and highlights one email in which David Wildstein, the key aide orchestrating the bridge closures, calls Foye a “piece of crap.” The Times is one of the few outlets, along with Fox News, to clearly state that nothing in the documents directly implicates Governor Christie.
Fox News was also the exception to the rule in not highlighting Foye’s outrage, but rather the fact that the emails clearly show that those who shut down the bridge knew within the hour the degree of chaos they had created and continued with their plan anyway.
While NBC News does not discuss the Foye email too deeply, it does emphasize a fact about which few others made much ado – that David Wildstein was at the bridge on the first day of closures.
Others in the media hone in on Foye’s indignation at the affair. Reuters quotes from Foye’s email and concludes that “what is clear is that Port Authority police and bridge authorities had little advance notice of the shutdown, which they warned would paralyze Fort Lee.” MSNBC fixates almost entirely on the Foye email and makes a connection through a cc’d email that a senior Christie aide not directly implicated in the closures, Regina Egea, received Foye’s complaint.
Politico centers its coverage on a conversation between Foye and Port Authority official Bill Baroni in which the latter demanded that “there can be no public discourse,” at which Foye balked. This angle gives the Port Authority chief close to whistleblower status, though there are nothing more than accusations that he leaked the story to the press.
None of these outlets noted an email in which David Wildstein complained that Foye, by reopening the bridge, was “messing with us 5 weeks before election.”
In MSNBC’s case, the reason for leaving that email out is rather clear: Rachel Maddow has proposed an entirely new alternative theory to the closures that has little if anything to do with the election. The Maddow theory rests on Christie’s having removed the first black New Jersey Supreme Court Justice and earned the ire of Democrats, causing him to close the bridge to anger NJ Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, who represents Fort Lee. An email which directly shows a link between the bridge closure and the election would sink the theory.
The email also seems to imply that perhaps Foye was aware of the election and that writing such a scathing private email and, as Wildstein assumed, leaking it to the press was a political act of war at a pivotal time. That would not fit the image that has arisen of Foye as a well-meaning public servant blindsided by a nefarious plan for political retribution.
We are still nowhere near the end of this political storm – neither for the Port Authority nor Governor Christie. As the documents are more closely read and the characters in them grow more familiar to the audience, it is important to keep an eye on who the media highlights as good and evil and what details it leaves out of a set of documents too big for one person to get through in a weekend.