Opinion: Chris Christie Keeps the Press Exactly Where He Wants It — In the Dark

Carl Golden | April 16, 2015 | Opinion
The governor’s carefully staged ‘town halls’ and radio shows foster the illusion that he is accessible to just plain folks

Carl Golden
The relationship between the governor’s office and the reporters assigned to cover it day in and day out can often be testy, occasionally combative, and generally in the nature of a fragile truce.

The Statehouse corridor that separates the covered from the coverers is a marble demilitarized zone, respected and understood by those on either side of it.

Civility usually reigns, but not always, between those whose job it is to manage the news and those whose competitive task is to mine for it. Agreements and disagreements are a part of the daily routine and it is the duty of the aggrieved parties to accept short-term disappointment without nursing long-term grudges.

Access — the ability of reporters to engage in face-to-face interaction with the policy setters and decision makers — has always been the magic potion to soothe bruised egos and hurt feelings.

Access has now become the flashpoint that has sparked criticism and soured the relationship between Gov. Chris Christie’s office and the media.

The governor has not held an open news conference or met with the Statehouse reporters since November — coming up on six months. That is an unheard of time span for a chief executive to fail to carve out an hour or so to take questions from those whose job is to report to the public actions taken or contemplated, decisions reached, explanations offered, proposals considered, or insights into administration thinking.

Meetings with newspaper editorial boards — a staple of previous governors’ media relations — have been sporadic at best and the elapsed time between them has been even longer than the gap in news conferences.

All governors and their top staffs are tempted by a go-over- the-traditional-media strategy because it offers the opportunity to maintain tight control of a carefully scripted message and to do so in a venue most favorable to the image one wishes to project. In this environment, the chances of an embarrassing mistake or unintentional gaffe are greatly minimized if not eliminated altogether.

The Christie administration, it seems, has carried the concept considerably further than its predecessors.

A major portion of the governor’s communications staff is devoted to significant utilization of social media, flooding YouTube with clips of Christie at his best, confronting critics with barbed retorts, or displaying his more charming and gentler side comforting those facing hard times in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

His “town hall forums” — approaching 140 in number — while playing to his strength as a rhetorically nimble adversary also provide the opportunity for him to display a knowledge of the issues that is clearly superior to that of his audience and thus free him to shape his message without fear of pushback, rebuttal, or follow-up.

[related]While Christie has proven adept at dealing with reporters in a news conference setting, he is clearly in his element when control is in his hands. As he moves to reboot his struggling but as-yet undeclared candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, it is telling that he chose the comfort zone provided by the town hall format to bring to New Hampshire.

The same is true of the “Ask the Governor” radio call-in show in which he banters with his inquisitors, either humorously or with blunt putdowns. It’s an atmosphere in which he is relaxed and comfortable and largely free of controversy.

The recent uproar over the show’s host accepting the temporary use of a new sports car, courtesy of an advertiser who made the offer after Christie suggested it, was an embarrassment for the station, rather than the governor.

The station has long been known for its political advocacy, including the memorable appearance of two of its talk-show hosts leading an anti-tax rally from the steps of the State House in 1993. Cruising around town at the wheel of a new Corvette while hosting a show for the governor who suggested it in the first place didn’t strike the station ownership as much of a journalistic ethics problem, leading some to muse about just how much tin was in management’s ear.

While the YouTube clips, town halls, and radio show are as much about entertainment as enlightenment, they serve another purpose as well — depicting the governor as publicly accessible, open to questions or criticism, and as a politician unafraid to rub elbows with everyday people.

It’s a public portrayal designed to blunt reporters’ complaints — “a bunch of whiners,” he once called them — about their being stiffed for the past six months.

His critics also cite the administration’s seeming obsession with secrecy, denying requests for what is arguably public information and forcing those who seek it to undertake costly and protracted litigation to obtain it. At last count more than 20 such cases were in various stages of legal challenge.

Not surprisingly, the information vacuum created by the lack of governor-reporter interaction has produced considerable speculation and conjecture. Accounts are printed or broadcast, relying on anonymous sources or others variously described as “those close to the situation” or “those familiar with the administration thinking.”

Nowhere has this been more in evidence than in reports that indictments are imminent — a matter of days, according to some — of individuals purportedly involved in the decision and aftermath of the closing of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee 18 ago and the inquiries into related matters by the United States Attorney.

There is no foolproof way of determining the accuracy of these reports, of course, but they seem to be growing in frequency and attracting increasing attention to what is certainly the most intensely watched political scandal in state history.

In the meantime, State House reporters are left to stew in their own ink while the Christie administration shows no sign of altering its media strategy to accommodate them.