Months into a scandal-plagued second term, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and the state’s Republican Party are employing a time-tested damage-control strategy: Blame the media.
In December, when reporters first raised questions about three days of sudden lane closures on the New Jersey side of one of the nation’s busiest bridges, Christie criticized reporters for asking about the traffic pile-up.
“I know you guys are obsessed with this. I'm not, I'm really not,” Christie said. “It's not that big a deal just because press runs around and writes about it both here and nationally,” he said at a news conference. “Let's not pretend that it's because of the gravity of the issue. It's because I am a national figure and anything like this will be written about a lot now. So, let's not pretend."
Since then, emails made public show that some of Christie top aides were involved in the closures, possibly in an act of political retribution. One former ally now claims evidence that Christie knew all about it -- something the governor has vehemently denied. The story first appeared in the New York Times. Team Christie’s response? Attack the media.
“A media firestorm was set off by sloppy reporting from the New York Times and their suggestion that there was actually ‘evidence’ when it was a letter alleging that ‘evidence exists,’” according to an email from the governor’s office titled “5 Things You Should Know About The Bombshell That’s Not a Bombshell.”
Originally, The Times said Wildstein claimed he had evidence to prove the lane closures, while later versions went with “evidence exists.” The Times said in a statement that it regularly updates web stories “for clarity as we did in this case. We do not note changes unless it involves an error.”
After New York Times reporter Kate Zernike – who broke the story about the “evidence exists” letter -- appeared on Morning Joe, Christie spokesman Colin Reed sent an email out refuting what he described as “no fewer than five misleading statements” made by Zernike.
“The blame the media strategy simply won’t save you,” said Jeanne Zaino, a professor of political science at Iona College and at New York University. “It won’t stop the investigation, it won’t stop people from looking at the actual facts of the case,” she said.
In January, Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer alleged in an interview on msnbc that the Christie administration held Sandy relief funds hostage until she approved a redevelopment project in her city.
“MSNBC is a partisan network that has been openly hostile to Governor Christie and almost gleeful in their efforts attacking him.” Again, that was the response from Reed, Christie’s spokesman.
This week, the New Jersey State Republican Committee sent an email to supporters asking for a $25 donation and blaming the media for the governor’s troubles.
“Over the past few weeks, the liberal media and Trenton Democrats have relentlessly attacked the Governor despite his strong, decisive leadership. It's time to stand up to MSNBC, the liberal media and their attacks.”
While lashing out at the media won’t help Christie with state and federal inquiries already under way, it could help him with his own party. “Christie has always been embraced in a luke-warm fashion by the GOP and particularly people on the right and so this really does shore up support,” said Zaino.
“Part of the hope in Christie’s bunker seems to be transforming the story into one about media bias rather than the underlying offense, thereby rallying red-meat Republicans to his side,” Noam Scheiber, a senior editor at the New Republic, wrote.
It may be working -- at least in terms of dollars. The Republican Governors Association, which Christie chairs, announced that it raised $6 million in January, even as accusations piled up against the governor. Last week, Christie traveled to Texas on behalf of the RGA and raked in $1.5 million, plus another $1 million during a fundraising swing in Chicago on Tuesday.
Nicole Wallace, a former communications chief for President George W. Bush and former adviser to the 2008 presidential campaign of Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, said the fundraising demonstrates that the lane closure scheme “has not affected the things the Republicans like about him. It has affected the way he’s viewed by the mainstream media and the progressive left media.”
There is nothing new about politicians blaming the media when they’re in hot water.
The Nixon administration accused the media of making “wild accusations” during Watergate. When press reports first emerged that former President Bill Clinton was in a relationship with a White House intern, then-first lady Hillary Clinton blamed a media “feeding frenzy,” and insisted there was a “vast right-wing conspiracy” against her husband.
Christie’s own press secretary, Michael Drewniak, has been subpoenaed by a state legislative committee looking into the lane closures. Drewniak is known “among the Trenton press corps for his profanity-laced tirades about stories he deems unflattering or unfair to Christie,” the Star-Ledger wrote. Unearthed emails show Drewniak using expletives to describe reporters. A request for comment from Christie's office was not immediately returned.