Chris Christie vs. The Press: Why he’s digging out of a deep hole

We saw a sober, soul-searching and apologetic Chris Christie sparring with reporters yesterday, a far cry from the brash and bombastic governor who usually enjoys jabbing the press.

Christie, who once dismissed the George Washington Bridge scandal as media hype, handed out plenty of  apologies while insisting he was “sad” and “humiliated” over being lied to by his staff—and proclaiming at one point, “I am not a bully.”

He apologized to New Jersey, to Fort Lee, and to the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, whose audacity in failing to endorse the governor for reelection is what triggered the lane closures that created a traffic nightmare in that town for days.

Christie brushed off a question about whether the quintessentially Joisey scandal hurts his 2016 chances, which is, of course, why the national media are all over this colorful tale.

MSNBC has seemingly been running with the story every 10 minutes or so. But the story certainly deserved much more than the limited coverage that Fox News gave it on Wednesday, when Bridgegate was essentially ignored until Shepard Smith’s show at 3 p.m. This was a bad call that, fairly or unfairly, fueled criticism that the network was avoiding a bad-news story for a prominent Republican. Fox joined CNN and MSNBC in carrying the marathon Christie presser yesterday, at least for the first hour. (Hey, it lasted nearly two.)

A hat tip, first of all, to the Bergen Record (where I worked eons ago) and the New York Times for obtaining the emails that cracked the story open. (Hard to argue there's no political payback in “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” and “Is it wrong that I am smiling?”). Newspaper digging still stands out in an era of cable bloviation.

And I have to say that some of the pundits have prematurely buried Christie’s 2016 chances, forgetting that most people aren’t paying attention to politics right now and that this may be ancient history by the time of the Iowa caucuses.

Still, this is really damaging stuff, and I’m not sure how much Christie helped himself with yesterday’s talkathon.

He certainly met the minimum requirements of damage control, taking responsibility for the fiasco even while insisting he was blindsided by the details, and firing a top aide. No one could accuse him of running and hiding.

But Christie went way, way too long, and after a time he seemed to be making the scandal about him and painting himself as a victim.

As for Christie’s protestations that he knew nothing until the Record story hit Wednesday morning, this scandal has been unfolding since September. He has been asking us to believe the flimsy cover story that his administration created chaos at the bridge for several days because of a traffic study. If he’s a hands-on manager, how come he didn’t get to the bottom of this? And did he really know nothing about the retribution carried out in his name?

But most corrosive of all, and a major theme in the media coverage, is that the story plays to the narrative that Christie is in fact a bully. There is a fine line between big-mouth brashness and overbearing heavy-handedness. And remember, if the point of the lane closures was to retaliate against Mayor Mark Sokolich, it came in a campaign in which Christie was cruising to a landslide victory.

Christie became a media darling because his no-nonsense, get-off-the-beach style made him great copy. But local reporters know that Christie plays hardball politics. The question--whether that style becomes a liability under the harsh glare of the national media spotlight—has yet to be fully answered.

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