In September, a report revealed that a 9-month federal investigation into Gov. Chris Christie and his involvement in the closure of two lanes of the George Washington Bridge in the early autumn of 2013 thus far had found no conclusive link between the governor and the actions of his staffers. Despite wall-to-wall coverage of the initial allegations against Christie, the most extensive coverage of that report could be found only via a New York City-based NBC News outlet.
Despite the lack of coverage, the implication from this leak was clear: Christie was exonerated. The Garden State governor admonished the Democrats in his state’s legislature to speedily wrap up their own investigation which, by August, had cost New Jersey’s taxpayers over $6 million. This week, that investigation closed and came to a similar conclusion as had the Department of Justice.
“The 136-page report—reviewed by The Wall Street Journal—found ‘no conclusive evidence’ that Mr. Christie ‘was or was not aware’ of the September 2013 lane closures in advance or while they were happening,” a Journal report quietly released on Thursday evening revealed.
While the report suggests that questions remain about when Christie was informed of the lane closures and the political nature of the falsified “traffic study” which prompted them, it indicates that they did not occur as a result of the governor’s direction. A federal probe is expected to wrap up next year, but few anticipate that it will come to a different conclusion.
Despite having gone all-in on this scandal which many believed could derail Christie’s 2016 ambitions, the press is unlikely to revisit this episode with the fervor that characterized their coverage of the original and unsubstantiated allegations against him.
“The Big Three networks, in a frenzy over New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s traffic headache dubbed ‘Bridgegate,’ have devoted a whopping 34 minutes and 28 seconds of coverage to the affair in just the last 24 hours,” The Washington Examiner’s Paul Bedard wrote in January. “By comparison, that’s 17 times the two minutes, eight seconds devoted to President Obama’s IRS scandal in the last six months, according to an analysis by the Media Research Center.”
That review of the amount of time the press devoted to this scandal in the initial weeks of its discovery is too kind to the press. A cursory review of the many depths which the press plumbed in order to find new avenues to indict the governor merits reexamination.
It was bridge-gate which first prompted the press to give widespread coverage to a Bergen Record report which indicated that the lane closures may have been responsible for the death of a 91-year-old woman who was trapped in an ambulance stuck in George Washington Bridge-related traffic. A breathless MSNBC anchor Lawrence O’Donnell declared that this death would inevitably become “Christie’s Willie Horton.”
Far less coverage was devoted to a statement from the deceased’s daughter who later said she believed “it was just her time.” Absolutely no coverage has been assigned to the many ambulances delayed in traffic triggered by the hundreds of protesters who have jammed busy arteries in major American metropolitan areas to protest the lack of indictments in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Coverage of these manacled first responders can be found almost exclusively on Twitter. How many deaths can we attribute to these protesters? No one will ever know.
O’Donnell later went so far as to craft an anti-Christie campaign ad which he proudly assured his audience he had written himself. “They are going to use Chris Christie’s own words against him,” O’Donnell advised the Democratic operatives in his audience. “I’m going to show you an example of how easy it is to do that.”
When the concrete news related to bridge-gate ebbed, uninhibited speculation began to take its place. MSNBC’s flagship host Rachel Maddow posited that the lane closures were a response to an arcane fight over state Supreme Court nominees, and Christie was seeking to exact revenge not against the mayor of Fort Lee but Senate Democratic leader and former Democratic lieutenant gubernatorial nominee Loretta Weinberg. Maddow was surrounded by heads nodding in sage agreement over this tortured conspiracy theory until New Jersey’s Democratic Senate President Stephen Sweeney was forced to go on the record dismissing the theory as wild-eyed conjecture.
MSNBC’s Chris Hayes was tapped to host an hour-long bridge-gate special in which the host and guests went into granular, Zapruder-esque detail of the particulars of the scandal that was certain to undo the popular Republican governor.
“This is the Lewinsky moment,” O’Donnell later told the hosts of Morning Joe amid a discussion about Christie’s press conference in which he denied personal involvement in the scandal. “You must deny it.”
“I was having Clinton flashbacks,” then MSNBC host Chuck Todd agreed, “like he was being very precise with his language.” The only distinction between these two controversies being that Clinton was implicated in having lied to the public, and under oath at that – a minor detail.
“The question for Democrats is do they want to kill this guy’s candidacy this quickly?” Politico reporter Glenn Thrush said of what he called the “bridge-ghazi” scandal. “He could probably do a lot more damage for them by sticking around for a longer period of time.”
When failed Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli called for Christie to step down as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin called it a “canary in the coalmine” likely presaging further defections from the governor’s side. “I’m not saying he should give it up or it will, but I do think that will be the first pressure point as the investigation envelops his administration more than it already has.” Christie went on to be one of the most successful chairmen in the RGA’s history, losing only one executive mansion gained in the 2010 GOP sweep and picking up four more.
“If I were the Republican Governor’s Association, I would be thinking about, and I don’t mean to sound hyperbolic about this, about whether Governor Christie is the right person to head the RGA at this time,” the prescient Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus opined. “I think this story has taken a very dangerous turn for the governor.”
And all of this was just the coverage the media devoted to this scandal in January alone.
Few of these pundits and reporters will revisit the comments they made less than a year ago, and it is not necessarily incumbent upon them to do so. Hindsight provides clarity, and some of the comments above, while hyperbolic, might have been justified at the time. Reviewing them in light of new evidence may serve, however, to put a check on the impulse to engage in wild speculation about Republican political figures in the future. Even if the media does not recall their feverish coverage of Christie’s alleged involvement in the bridge-gate scandal, their audiences do.