The Real Winner of Chris Christie’s Bridgeghazi-Gate: Local Newspapers

National Journal
Brian Resnick
Jan. 13, 2014, 10:09 a.m.

The Ber­gen County Re­cord is a me­di­um-sized pa­per, with a daily print cir­cu­la­tion of around 150,000 and around 200 re­port­ers in the news­room.

The real reas­on The Re­cord de­serves most of the cred­it is be­cause it made it a story in the first place — in Septem­ber.

But it com­pletely dom­in­ated the news last week, break­ing the leaked emails that in­crim­in­ated the Christie ad­min­is­tra­tion in the George Wash­ing­ton Bridge lane clos­ures. It had all the work­ings of a great tale: polit­ic­al cor­rup­tion and re­venge against the uni­ver­sally sa­li­ent back­drop of traffic con­ges­tion. And it hits on the sweetest spot of loc­al cov­er­age: loc­al cor­rup­tion that makes na­tion­al shock­waves.

They took a story which, in Septem­ber, was banal on its face — a traffic jam in New Jer­sey, no way! — and  star­ted pulling strands that could un­ravel the be­gin­ning stitches of a pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. And The Re­cord has been re­ceiv­ing most of the ac­col­ades this week, even though na­tion­al out­lets like The Wall Street Journ­al in­ves­ted heavy re­port­ing time in­to the story (and are ar­gu­ably also worthy of the cred­it of “own­ing” part of the story).

The Re­cord pub­lished its story about the damning emails 20 or so minutes ahead of The New York Times, which had its own in­de­pend­ent re­port. But that’s the su­per­fi­cial reas­on why The Re­cord “won” the day.

The real reas­on The Re­cord de­serves most of the cred­it is be­cause it made it a story in the first place — in Septem­ber. In the very first column on the is­sue, The Re­cord quoted Fort Lee May­or Mark Soko­lich as say­ing, “Now I’m be­gin­ning to won­der if there’s something I did wrong. Am I be­ing sent some sort of mes­sage?”

And the pa­per high­lighted the key sus­pi­cions:

…[I]t doesn’t take much to get the ru­mor mill go­ing. The Road War­ri­or phone was ringing all Thursday af­ter­noon with equal num­bers of calls from road-weary bridge com­muters and con­spir­acy the­or­ists who in­sisted that the Port was pun­ish­ing Soko­lich — either for fail­ing to en­dorse Gov­ernor Christie’s elec­tion bid or for push­ing through a $500 mil­lion, 47-story high-rise hous­ing de­vel­op­ment near the bridge, or for fail­ing to sup­port the Port’s last toll hike.

“Those two toll­booths were pur­posely closed without no­tice to any­one,” said a source close to the situ­ation. “There is ab­so­lutely no le­git­im­ate traffic-safety ra­tionale for this change.”

“I have to give them cred­it,” Wendell Jam­ieson, the ed­it­or on The New York Times‘ story, told Mar­garet Sul­li­van, the pa­per’s pub­lic ed­it­or. “Who would have thought that something as mundane as a traffic jam in New Jer­sey could ex­plode in­to the biggest polit­ic­al story of the new year?”

The email rev­el­a­tions last week were the cul­min­a­tion, not the first step, in the out­ing of this scan­dal. Yes, this is now a na­tion­al story, and na­tion­al out­lets will fur­ther the nar­rat­ive. But The Re­cord set the events in mo­tion.

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