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Christie, CNN and the Media: Tale of the ‘investigation’ that wasn’t

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In this Sept. 12, 2013 photo provided by the Office of the Governor of New Jersey, Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly, right, stands with Gov. Chris Christie, left, during a tour of the Seaside Heights, N.J. boardwalk after it was hit by a massive fire. Christie fired Kelly Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, and apologized over and over for his staff's "stupid" behavior, insisting during a nearly two-hour news conference that he had no idea anyone around him had engineered traffic jams as part of a political vendetta against a Democratic mayor. (AP Photo/Office of Gov. Chris Christie, Tim Larsen)

The story crashed upon Chris Christie’s administration like a powerful wave, just as he was drowning in the George Washington Bridge scandal.

Nearly everyone in the media jumped on a report that Christie is facing a second investigation for the possible misuse of Hurricane Sandy relief funds.

Which turns out to be an old story, an overhyped story, and one pushed by a Democrat.

None of this is to suggest that the Republican governor doesn’t deserve serious scrutiny over the scandal in which his close aides deliberately created a traffic nightmare, or over bullying tactics and the way he has conducted himself in office. But this one looks like a fumble for the media.

CNN broke the story on Monday, labeling it an “exclusive.” The network said that “a new federal investigation into how the New Jersey governor spent some of the Sandy relief money could threaten to wash away the foundation of his political brain.” CNN reported the story more than a dozen times that day, and later interviewed Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, who said it was fine to spend some of the federal aid to promote tourism but that ads should not have been made featuring Christie and his family.

Was this news? Back in August, the Bergen Record reported: “U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone has asked an inspector general to look into whether Governor Christie misappropriated federal funds to appear in a state tourism ad campaign.”

And the Asbury Park Press reported that Pallone “wants the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to probe ‘mismanagement of taxpayer funds’ by the Christie administration from the ‘Stronger Than The Storm’ ad campaign that features Christie and his family in TV commercials.”

CNN declined to comment yesterday.

And there’s more. The Housing and Urban Development Department’s inspector general says that what CNN repeatedly described as an investigation is actually an audit, and that such audits “are something that this office does routinely.” And, says the office, the “audit was initiated in September 2013 to examine whether the State administered its Tourism Marketing Program in accordance with applicable departmental and Federal requirements.”

That was reported by The Hill, Politico, New York’s Daily News, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Bergen Record, among others.

So a routine audit that began last September was resurrected as “news” because the New Jersey Democrat who asked for the inquiry was pushing that story line days after the bridge scandal erupted.

Asked for comment, Christie spokesman Colin Reed said the ad campaign “was just one part of the first action plan approved by the Obama administration and developed with the goal of effectively communicating that the Jersey Shore was open for business during the first summer after Sandy.  As the inspector general made clear this week, this is nothing more than a routine audit. We're confident it will show that the ads were a key part in helping New Jersey get back on its feet after being struck by the worst storm in state history.”

In fairness, CNN adopted Pallone’s characterization in its reporting. He said on the “Situation Room” that “I think the fact that the inspector general has now said they're going to conduct a full-scale investigation is significant.” The congressman told the same thing to USA Today.

But the IG, David Montoya, says the examination of the $25 million in tourism funds was an audit. And in his press release, Pallone also uses the word audit, saying he had recently been notified that Montoya had completed a preliminary review and was proceeding to the audit stage.

The notion that Christie had suddenly become the subject of another federal investigation ricocheted through the media, leaving what can only be described as a false impression.

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Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.