Reporters focus on personality instead of policy
The November 18 cover of Time magazine about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie caused a stir because of this line of text: “The Elephant in the Room.” Many saw that as a swipe at Christie’s weight, as well as a feeble pun about Republicans.
But the bigger problem with the Time piece, as with so much of the coverage of Christie, is more fundamental: The real elephant in the room is that Christie has an actual record of governing a state, and yet journalists seem almost totally uninterested in discussing it.
There is no doubt that Christie is a media darling (Extra!, 5/11). On Meet the Press (11/10/13), Time‘s Mark Halperin said:
Chris Christie is someone who is magical in the way politicians can be magical, like our last three presidents. People like having them on TV. He’s a good talker. He won.
The actual Time article, while not crediting Christie with magical powers, presented him in glowing terms. Christie “has run the Garden State with combustible passion, blunt talk and the kind of bipartisan dealmaking that no one seems to do anymore,” Michael Scherer writes. “He’s a workhorse with a temper and a tongue, the guy who loves his mother and gets it done.”
To Time, the Christie story that matters is how he can get the conservative base of the Republican Party to support him. Pushing the major political parties to the “center” is a well-worn, bipartisan media pattern; it’s what caused much of the press enthusiasm for John McCain in 2000 and 2008 (Extra!, 7/08). But as Jonathan Martin of the New York Times (11/11/13) wrote, “The more the news media and the establishment cheer on Mr. Christie, the more grassroots activists–especially members of the Tea Party–resent it.”
This framing prioritizes criticism of Christie from the right. As Time put it:
Like McCain and Romney before him, Christie is wide open to attack from his right. He opposes gay marriage, but in October he called off a legal fight to block same-sex unions in New Jersey, earning the ire of Christian conservatives who promptly complained of “serious” concerns about Christie’s “reliability.”
So Christie, after successfully blocking marriage equality in New Jersey for years with his veto, eventually gave up what increasingly appeared to be an unwinnable legal battle–that’s what Time means by Christie being “wide open to attack from his right.”
But what about other policy outcomes in the state Christie governs? Christie made the rounds of the Sunday chat shows on November 10 after winning a landslide election, as seemingly every journalist made clear. But the journalists avoided Christie’s record as governor, instead focusing squarely on whether Christie is right-wing enough to win the Republican presidential nomination. “Can you play in places like Iowa and South Carolina?” asked ABC This Week anchor George Stephanopoulos.
On NBC‘s Meet the Press, David Gregory wondered: “Mitt Romney told me here last week that you could save the Republican Party. Does it need saving and are you the guy to save it?”
Gregory did at one point mention an actual policy issue, noting that the Wall Street Journal editorial page had deemed Christie’s economic record “the biggest area of disappointment.” But that was the exception, despite the fact that there’s plenty to examine.
New York Times reporter Kate Zernike (10/30/13) wrote one of the few pieces that focused on Christie’s actual record. She noted that Christie, who won election in 2009 attacking Democrat Jon Corzine’s budget gimmicks,
has relied on the same kind of short-term strategies, diverting money for things like affordable housing and property tax rebates to balance the budget, and tapping funds intended for development of new sources of energy to keep the lights on in state buildings.
Zernike added that Christie
has issued more debt for transportation projects than any of his predecessors. Overall spending has risen 14 percent, and while state surpluses nationwide are growing, New Jersey’s has shrunk to its lowest percentage in a decade. The state’s bond rating is among the worst in the country.
And while Christie touted the state’s private-sector jobs record on all of the Sunday shows, none of the reporters interviewing him thought to bring up the state’s dismal jobs performance Compared to other states, New Jersey ranks near the bottom–with the 41st highest unemployment rate, and the 44th worst job growth record (Daily Beast, 11/11/13).
As media portrayals stick with the “moderate” storyline, The Nation‘s John Nichols (6/3/13) had a different, more factually based analysis:
Christie is no moderate. He’s a social conservative who opposes reproductive rights, has defunded Planned Parenthood and has repeatedly rejected attempts to restore state funding for family planning centers. He has vetoed money for clinics that provide health screenings for women, including mammograms and pap smears. He vetoed marriage equality.
Christie’s consistent when it comes to reading from the right’s playbook. The governor announced early in his tenure that he was pulling New Jersey out of a regional carbon emissions reduction program, and then declared his intention to scale back the state’s renewable energy targets.
Christie, Nichols added, has a record very much like controversial Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker:
Christie is at his most militant when it comes to implementing the austerity agenda associated with the most conservative Republican governors. There’s a credible case to be made that he is “doing a Scott Walker on New Jersey,” as a Garden State headline suggested in early May, after the governor proposed gutting civil service protections. Christie makes no bones about his admiration for the Wisconsin governor, whose anti-labor crusade inspired mass protests, a recall attempt and miserable job-creation numbers.
But those serious issues remain off the corporate media radar as they lavish praise on the supposedly straight-talking, bipartisan Republican governor. “There is no doubt that Christie’s personality is the dominant feature of his political style,” as Washington Post reporter Dan Balz (11/4/13) put it. The same goes for the way media are covering Christie–which is surely exactly the way he likes it.