Did Adoring Christie Coverage Invite NJ Corruption?

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

Trying to explain New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's unraveling political career as allegations mount about the bullying ways of his office, the New York Daily News' Mike Lupica, in his latest column, quoted a local  operative who diagnosed Christie's sudden implosion this way: Hubris.

Christie's January-to-forget at first featured the startling revelation that his senior aides and appointees were in on a plan to seek political retribution by wreaking havoc on the city of Fort Lee, in the form of a massive, four-day traffic jam concocted under the phony guise of a traffic study.  

New revelations in the days since suggest that the scandals reflect a culture of bullying and retribution that's become pervasive inside the governor's office. Over the weekend, the Democratic mayor of Hoboken, Dawn Zimmer, alleged that two senior members of Christie's administration threatened to hold Hurricane Sandy relief money hostage from the city until the mayor approved a redevelopment plan favored by the governor.  Christie's office denies the charge; an editorial in the state's largest newspaper, which endorsed Christie three months ago, calls the extortion allegation "believable."

Zimmer hasn't been alone in alleging payback. According to Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, after he failed to endorse Christie's re-election last year a series of meetings he had scheduled with previously supportive Christie officials were abruptly canceled and never rescheduled. And Elizabeth, NJ's longtime mayor, Christian Bollwage, claims that after he opposed parts of Christie's legislative agenda in 2010, the state retaliated with collective punishment for Elizabeth locals by closing the city's only Department of Motor Vehicles department.

In the wake of the mounting revelations, the Daily News' Lupica quotes a political insider who described described Christie's mounting woes this way:  "Christie has been on a continual roll and he thinks he's invincible. And once you think you are invincible, you've got a problem."

Question: Who was instrumental in convincing Chris Christie's political team that the governor was invincible? The Beltway media.

And so who might deserve some of the blame for the bullying abuse of power sponsored by Christie? The Beltway media.

It's certainly possible Christie and his staff would have behaved just as arrogantly and boorishly without the adoring press clips during his first term. But it's also easy to imagine how the indulgent Christie press might have created a sense of invincibility within the governor's inner circle. You can see how Christie's crew may have interpreted that lavish media praise for the governor's bullying personality (he's a Straight Shooter!) as a green light for increasingly outlandish behavior, such as deliberately choking off traffic on the nations' busiest bridge and thinking they could get away with it.

Has the local New York/New Jersey press tried to hold Christie accountable while piercing his Reformer facade? Some journalists certainly have. And we saw more of that just prior to the bridge and Hoboken scandals breaking this year, as disturbing allegations of wrongdoing by Christie continued to mount.

But in a state without its own major media market, it's always been the national press coverage that defined Christie as a political rising star, and that showered him with almost endless praise and admiration. And it was the national media that showed little interest in asking tough questions about Christie or even mildly addressing his abusive tactics.

Eagerly accepting the task of branding Christie as a "different" kind of "tough-talking" politician, the Beltway press polished his image, presenting his bullying as a feature, not a bug.

Time cheered, "He's big, he's brash, and he's not afraid of picking fights with Republicans or making allies of Democrats. Can Chris Christie bring his wayward party back to the center?" Newsweek published a cover story headlined, "What Obama Can Learn From Chris Christie," The Washington Post recently asked, "Is Chris Christie The Republican's Bill Clinton?" and just three weeks ago The Atlantic crowned Christie the best 2016 candidate of 2013 (the then-nascent bridge scandal was the "one dark cloud hanging over Christie's 2013" but "seems likely to dissipate," according to that piece).

Does any of that sound like Washington journalists were even slightly tuned into what we now know was unfolding in New Jersey under Christie? Does that sound like Beltway journalists, eager to market Christie's personality, were asking any critical questions about the abusive ways things were getting done in New Jersey?

Again, the press loved the bullying ways. They didn't just excuse it or downplay it,  they celebrated it. So wouldn't Christie's office and his appointees simply view that as permission to go bully more people?

By the way, can you imagine the media's reaction if, as U.S. Senator, Barack Obama had angrily wagged his finger in the face of Illinois voters during town hall meetings, or if he had flown in a $12 million, state-owned helicopter to attend one of his daughter's baseball games? Christie did those things and the D.C. press never flinched as journalists built him up as an "authentic" leader.

Recounting his run-in with Christie and his abusive ways, Elizabeth mayor Bollwage stressed that years ago when he says his community suffered retribution, and when Christie was promoted as a political rock star, nobody believed the allegation about the governor.  "We were saying this back in 2010 and 2011," the mayor told New Jersey's Star-Ledger last week.  "However, everyone was so in love the Christie back then, it fell on deaf ears."

Would the scandals now threatening Christie's career look different if earlier New Jersey complaints about corruption and abuse of power hadn't fallen on so many deaf ears? If the Beltway media hadn't been so committed to marketing the star governor?

Chris Christie
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