January 14

Kathleen Parker: Christie scandal could shift focus to a greater villain: The media

Journalists' focus on the George Washington Bridge lane closings is something New Jersey's governor could spin to his advantage.

In the days since revelations surfaced about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s office orchestrating the now-infamous George Washington Bridge lane closings, I’ve had at least four different reactions.

Listed in chronological order, they were: He’s dead; maybe not so bad if he didn’t know anything; OMG, an elderly woman died! He’s gone. Latest and hardly least, Christie may emerge relatively unscathed as the media displace him as villains.

To stipulate, we recognize that Florida Sen. Marco Rubio made the sanest observation when asked last Thursday to comment. “I think the right approach is to be a bit prudent here and not jump to conclusions,” Rubio said. “I don’t know anything about this. So for me to comment beyond that would just not be, you know, appropriate.”

Ahem, well, fine. There you have the difference between a senator in line to replace Christie as the leading Republican presidential candidate and – everybody else.

On the New York-to-Washington train Thursday, two words continuously rose above the din: Chris Christie. The best summation of how the scandal is playing politically came from two high-profile consultants who happened to be on the same train – Republican Mary Matalin and Democrat James Carville.

“Big deal,” said Matalin when I asked her thoughts.

“May I quote you?”

“Yes.”

Carville, somewhat less concisely, said he gave Christie a C-minus on his two-hour news conference, down from an initial B-plus. The lower grade followed further consideration that revealed contradictions and fuzzy details that didn’t add up, he said. As just one example, also notably mentioned by Rush Limbaugh, Christie said he hadn’t slept for a couple of days, but he had just found out about his staff’s involvement the day before.

Slip of the tongue, or vagueness in the service of subterfuge? Perhaps more to the point of Christie’s future, Carville noted that Limbaugh and other high-profile conservatives aren’t defending the governor.

Even so, many Republicans in the Matalin camp see this as much ado about little, especially compared to, for instance, President Obama’s repeated falsehoods about people keeping the health insurance they like under the Affordable Care Act. Democrats see this as the inevitable ruin of a bully run amok.

But another consequential feature of this controversy is an emerging narrative that, barring the unforeseen, could shift focus from Christie’s administration to the greater villain – the media. Judging from my overflowing inbox, there’s a growing sense on the right that Christie is being unfairly battered by a media all too eager to help defrock the Republican front-runner.

Needless to say, one bad deed (Obama’s falsehoods) does not excuse another (misusing power to punish a political foe). The bridge scandal is compelling precisely because it fits the well-documented bullying image of Christie, notwithstanding his denials during the news conference. “I am not a bully,” he said, reminding us mostly of “I am not a witch.” Or “I am not a crook.”

Christie’s style was always going to be problematic for him in the primaries, especially in the polite South. But now he also can be viewed as a victim not only of malignant, malicious and mind-bendingly stupid staffers but also of a two-faced, pro-Democratic media.

The media are not monolithic, as we like to remind people. But we do have a tendency to focus on the latest scandal. And it does seem that we tend to treat Republican scandals as more delicious than others. This is owing less to the sins committed than to the greater sin of hypocrisy. The higher the bar, the harder they fall.

But Christie isn’t a strong exhibit in the mean-media argument. More than a Republican, he is a colorful, larger-than-life character who speaks loudly and carries a big stick. Cameras will always find the most interesting landscape, and Christie has that turf covered. More to the salient point, as the leading Republican presidential candidate, he can hardly be ignored. Coverage of this fiasco isn’t disproportionate to the man, even if it may be to the event.

If, indeed, Christie had no knowledge of the lane closings and if, in fact, he was betrayed by idiots – even though he hired and trusted those idiots – then he could survive.

Those are big ifs. What is certain is that the only thing the Republican base hates more than a liar and a bully is a bullying media. Once that common enemy is established, the perceived victim often becomes the victor.

Kathleen Parker is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. She can be contacted at: kathleenparker@washpost.com

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