How The Media (Briefly) Exonerated Christie

Matt Katz | September 24, 2014 | Katz on Christie

It started innocently enough last Thursday night – with a scoop from WNBC, the local affiliate in New York.

“Federal officials tell us the Justice Department has found no evidence so far that Gov. Christie had any idea about the plan to shut down lanes approaching the George Washington Bridge,” reported WNBC’s Jonathan Dienst.

There were two important elements of this statement. First, “so far.” This indicated that the investigation is ongoing, as subsequent reporting by WNYC confirmed. Second, the anonymous officials told WNBC only that Christie didn’t know about the plan to shut down the lanes — not whether he knew after the fact and tried to cover it up, a potential crime in itself. Nor does the story report on the status of other Bridgegate related investigations, like that of the alleged shakedown of the Hoboken mayor over Sandy aid, or the New York District Attorney’s probe of possible illegal use of Port Authority funds to pay for repairs to the Pulaski Skyway in Jersey City.

And yet, here’s how Brian Williams interpreted this anonymously-sourced story on NBC Nightly News: “The federal charges are now ruled out for the affair that came to be known as Bridgegate.”

Then The Washington Post jumped aboard. It ran two stories – “Today is a very good day for Chris Christie” and  “Attention, GOP 2016 hopefuls: Chris Christie is poised to reclaim frontrunner status.” The latter story said that Christie was “no longer a target,” of the federal investigation, even though nobody has come forward to say that, either anonymously or otherwise.

Williams had to retract his story Friday night. “We may have added confusion to some complex legal reporting here last night,” he said. “The state of play is this: The feds have so far found no grounds for charges. No involvement of the governor himself. Both the federal and state investigations continue.”

The Washington Post’s media critic Erik Wemple took NBC News to task for Williams’ statement, but didn’t say that his paper had made the same mistake. The Post changed the first paragraph of one of its stories online, but didn’t acknowledge the error other than to note that the story had been altered from its original version.

Christie told listeners of 101.5 FM’s “Ask The Governor” show that he wasn’t surprised by the WNBC report. “What matters most to me is that the people of New Jersey know that I tell them the truth,” he said. “They don’t always have to agree with me, and they don’t always agree with me, and it doesn’t mean we won’t make a mistake, because that won’t happen either. But I’ll tell them the truth.”

Christie’s office emailed a clip of those comments to reporters, and the YouTube video has already been viewed 2,500 times.

By Sunday, the misinformation had seeped into the public consciousness. Christie attended services at New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, where Pastor Joe Carter told the crowd that the governor had been cleared. “I saw in the paper that you’re cleared of all of that nonsense,” Carter said, and the congregation replied “amen!”

“So we’re praying for you, Gov. New Hope Baptist Church is praying for you, Mary Pat, all of the children.”

The following day Christie returned to the campaign trail. He’s now on an six-state, eight-day tour raising money Republican senate and gubernatorial candidates.