Christie Bashing: Sport for Pundits, but Not Reporters

Christie Bashing: Sport for Pundits, but Not Reporters
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Mika Brzezinski is incredulous -- very incredulous. She made that clear to the audience of MSNBC's "Morning Joe" by suggesting over and over the other morning that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is a liar.

She didn’t actually use the phrase “he’s a liar.” Such a straightforward accusation is unsubstantiated by the facts known at this time. She just dismissed Christie’s claim he hadn’t known of his aide’s culpability in Fort Lee’s four days of apocalyptic traffic by repeatedly insisting that no one could possibly believe such a preposterous claim of innocence. In other words, we all know he’s lying.

Cable television isn’t a courtroom, and standards of evidence in cable punditry are rarely more restrictive than “whatever your gut tells you.” So, there was nothing terribly surprising about Ms. Brzezinski making an unsubstantiated accusation. It’s cable, morning cable at that, and, well, it’s not really meant to be taken seriously.

Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough (unlike his co-host, he says he’s giving Christie the benefit of the doubt) aren’t journalists. And they don’t, as the saying goes, really play them on TV. As for the actual journalists who regularly appear on ”Morning Joe,” they seem to enjoy it as a place where they can sometimes say what they really think without going to the bother of finding out facts and reporting evidence to support their hunches.

It’s easy for presidential candidates and their staffs, especially in the pre-campaign phase when you have time on your hands, to get exercised over unfair slings and arrows issued thoughtlessly from cable TV studios. It’s easy, too, to exaggerate the benefits of extravagant praise that come from the same quarters. Voters who actually base their opinion on your candidate from something they heard on cable TV are surprisingly few in number and are probably not really up for grabs.

Were the governor interested in my opinion, I would tell him not to take being called a liar on cable TV seriously or personally. It happens a lot, and it will happen again, many times. No one likes to have their character called into question, but politicians who can’t bear the experience need to do something else for a living.

That’s especially true for presidential candidates, who, if they are in the race until the end, will have their character attacked somewhere in the neighborhood of a billion times. They will discover, too, that about 90 percent of the “investigative” reporting that might damage their campaign is initiated when an opponent’s campaign shares its opposition research with a reporter, and suggests the conclusions they want the reporter to draw.

By grinning and bearing slurs from cable pundits today, Christie can start training himself to endure the avalanche of slurs, insults and slander that will come his way if he is the Republican presidential nominee. And he can start showing voters, not telling them, that he isn’t the ill-tempered, vengeful bully his detractors accuse him of being.

In the near term, the more worrying problem for Christie is the extent to which the rest of the media are already relying on the partisan accusations and innuendo that influence twitter and blogs and a fair number of cable pundits. A case in point is a front page Washington Post story this week that was driven, as far as I could discern, by sources who have a professional responsibility to make Christie’s life miserable: Democrats who would rather he not be the 2016 nominee nor have a successful second term as governor of New Jersey.

The mayor of Jersey City, and likely future Democratic gubernatorial candidate, complained that meetings he had scheduled with people in Christie’s administration were cancelled after he declined to endorse Christie. He’s been making the accusation for a while, but it was big news in the Post, where it was characterized as Christie “cutting off his access to top state officials.” That makes it seem a more permanent and widespread thing than it probably is. (And if cancelling a few meetings is how Christie exacts vengeance on his opponents, he’s more Mr. Rogers than Richard Nixon.)

Democrats in the New Jersey Assembly are creating special committees and have threatened more subpoenas. Some are even muttering impeachment. This, too, gave Washington Post reporters a pretext to proclaim that the controversy was “expanding” even though a single piece of evidence has yet to come to light that Christie encouraged or knew that his associates had plotted revenge on Fort Lee’s unsuspecting mayor.

I don’t know if Chris Christie is telling the truth. I don’t know if he’s a bully. I’ve never met him. I haven’t seen evidence he lied. No one has. So, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, as I would anyone else. And I’ll give the manufactured outrage and unsubstantiated attacks of his opponents the credence they merit, which is none.

That might be an impossible standard for cable pundits to abide. It shouldn’t be for journalists. 

Mark Salter is the former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain and was a senior adviser to the McCain for President campaign.

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