Commentary Magazine


The Christie Scandal and Journalism 101

Chris Christie’s rough winter has followed a reliable pattern in politics. Though he has yet to be tied directly to the closing of the George Washington Bridge, the whiff of scandal has put him on the defensive and invited the type of scrutiny that usually follows politically wounded frontrunners. Because it dented his image, there have been, and likely will be more, stories of the “maybe we got this guy all wrong” variety. And because it takes place in famously corrupt New Jersey, journalists will instinctively reach for the Soprano State storyline—and not without plenty of justification.

Enter the New Republic’s Alec MacGillis, who has a lengthy article on Christie’s career. It is several thousand words long, and runs out of gas well before the finish line. The headline is “Chris Christie’s Entire Career Reeks,” which aptly sums up the article: throughout Christie’s career, he builds alliances, and as his fortunes rise those of his enemies fall. Something doesn’t smell right to MacGillis, and no doubt there are instances in his career when questions were raised about his knack for playing hardball. But MacGillis gets drawn so far into the complicated world of Jersey politics that he loses his bearings and starts to see corruption everywhere, at some points ditching any pretense of searching for the facts and in the process unfairly maligning not only Christie but others.

This paragraph, on Christie’s reelection campaign, is a good example:

For those who got behind the governor, there were incentives. To give but one example: The close-knit Orthodox community in Lakewood had endorsed Corzine in 2009. In March, a coalition of the town’s rabbis and businessmen announced it would be backing Christie this time around. Two months later, the state granted $10.6 million in building funds to an Orthodox rabbinical school in Lakewood, one of the largest expenditures for any private college in the state. (The yeshiva was not exactly cash-strapped: A copy of its application I obtained noted that its endowment “far exceeded” the $1.84 million it was expected to contribute to the project.)

The combination of complex stories and questions of Jewish financial influence on elections almost guarantees that liberal journalists will slip on their biases and their quest for simplicity and fall flat on their faces. Add in the involvement of a Republican, and you have a recipe for journalistic disaster. And that paragraph is a model of journalistic disaster.

The problems with such negligence are manifold, but one surely is that to smear by suspicion and implication an entire religious community because of an obsession with taking down a Republican officeholder is quite obviously morally problematic. But there’s a way to figure this all out. If you weren’t an axe-grinding partisan actor but instead a reporter trying to get the facts, what would you find in this instance?

You would start by wondering, for example, whether it is unique for the Lakewood yeshiva to get state education funding. And you would quickly find that no, it isn’t unique. Christie himself tried to point this out when the state’s leftists, such as Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, criticized him for supporting religious education:

“The speaker is one of the biggest proponents of the [Tuition Aid Grant] program in the state, and I approved the TAG grant program as well,” Christie said today. “From 2000-2012, the Beth Medrash Govoha has gotten $46 million in TAG grants. That’s state money. And the speaker has never raised an objection to that. But now all of a sudden, she objects to her own bill.”

Next, you would probably look into how the Orthodox community in Lakewood, through its rabbinical leadership at the Vaad, goes about making gubernatorial endorsements. You would find, within minutes if not seconds, that the Vaad has a very clearly delineated process for making endorsements at that level: the policy is generally to endorse the incumbent, so as not to get the Jewish community involved in high-stakes partisan politics.

MacGillis would have his readers think the Orthodox community did something unusual in endorsing Christie for reelection when they endorsed his opponent last time around. But it’s no mystery: Christie was the incumbent. In 2009, when they endorsed Corzine, he was the incumbent. The Vaad endorsed Jim McGreevey in 2001, when there was no incumbent. Four years prior, the Vaad did not endorse McGreevey; his opponent that year was Christine Todd Whitman, the incumbent. You get the idea.

I grew up in Lakewood, though I did not attend the yeshiva’s school, instead attending Conservative and modern Orthodox Hebrew day schools. So perhaps I can more easily catch such atrocious mistakes. But the real story, as I explained, would have been very easy to find for anyone looking to get the story right. There are certainly legitimate questions to ask about Christie—having spent much of my life in New Jersey, including working as a reporter, I readily grant that it’s a state whose politics reward, and then perpetuate and produce, cynicism. But it also rewards an honest quest for the truth for those interested in it.

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