Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Media Gridlock on Christie's Bridge-Gate

"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."

By now, most anybody who's seen the news recently is familiar with that sentence.  It was written in an e-mail by a member of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's staff and sent to a bureaucrat at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

That bureaucrat, a long-time friend of the governor's whom Christie appointed to the Port Authority, used that e-mail as his signal to arrange some lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, which spans the Hudson River between Fort Lee, New Jersey, and New York City.

By way of perspective, the double-decker George Washington Bridge is the only bridge between New Jersey and Manhattan.  In fact, it's one of only three vehicular links between the entire state of New Jersey, and the most densely populated sliver of land in the entire United States.  The other two links are tunnels.  Suffice it to say that it doesn't take much for traffic congestion on either side of the Hudson to morph into full-blown gridlock.  Intentionally shutting down lanes of traffic is a prescription for commuter chaos.  And sure enough, back in September, that's what resulted from this eight-word e-mail.

Bad news indeed for metropolitan New York commuters.  But national and international news?  Our media has thought so, and seen fit to elevate what, back in September, was simply a local traffic story into the biggest political firestorm of the new year.

You could say that the media has gridlocked itself over the affair.

Part of the reason news hounds are like a dog with a bone over Governor Christie's bridge-gate is the fact that New York and New Jersey comprise America's largest media market, and it's easy to assume that the rest of America really cares about what happens in that region's iconic tourist attractions.  The GWB, as New Yorkers call it, may not be accessible as a conventional tourist attraction, but plenty of tourists have crossed over it, marveling at its mighty steel-beamed towers, it's dramatic entrance through the rocky cliffs in Fort Lee, and its magnificent view both up and down the Hudson on a clear day.

Commuters usually have plenty of time to soak in those views while they sit in traffic on the bridge, whether the congestion is caused by Christie administration staffmembers or not.

Another part of the reason is that Chris Christie has been deemed - mostly by the media - as a viable contender for the Republican nomination for president in the 2018 elections.  He's mostly a moderate, he's commanded significant exposure from the media during his state's devastation from Superstorm Sandy two years ago, he's instantly recognizable by his considerable girth, and he likes to speak his mind, which makes for some great headlines.  The media as a whole might not want Christie to be president, but he's good for business, because he generates news.

Well, news that the media thinks Americans will consume, that is.  This bridge story, however, may be going nowhere with most people who live outside of the Big Apple's bubble.  Polls taken of voters after the bridge scandal story started splashing about the media haven't recorded the epic hits to Christie's popularity that one might have expected.  Yes, most of his popularity numbers have dipped nationwide, but in New Jersey itself, they've remained remarkably stagnant.  And in politics, stagnant poll numbers are a good thing after your staff orders lane closures on a piece of federal highway as a petty act of political retribution.

Then too, the public may simply not be buying the histrionics being blasted at them by a media always desperate for attention.  After all, at the end of the day, this is simply another example of politics giving the common voter the shaft.  This happens all the time, especially in places like metropolitan New York, where corruption in government has been rampant for generations.  In this case, nobody got killed - even the family of the 91-year-old woman whose trip to the hospital was delayed by the gridlock says it was likely too late before 911 was even called.  Kids got to school four hours late - but who's complaining there?

And what about all the times civil service unions have probably staged mock lane closures or toll-taking go-slows as a protest or work stoppage?  How many times have you driven past construction sites where the workers are all standing around idle equipment?  We don't know of all the scams, half-truths, miscommunications, and other needless - and possibly illegal - retaliatory stunts that are perpetrated against taxpayers every day in places as bureaucratically complex as New York City.  At least in this case, the idiots who staged the stunt have set a good example of what others shouldn't try in the future.

Shucks - who are we kidding?  Politicians and their hangers-on never know how or when to quit their shenanigans, do they?  Consider, for example, the excerpts of Robert Gates' memoir dribbling out in the media today, in which the retired defense secretary's disdain for Congress is scathing.

"Uncivil, incompetent in fulfilling basic constitutional responsibilities (such as timely appropriations), micromanagerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned, often putting self (and reelection) before country - this was my view of the majority of the United States Congress," Gates wrote.

While it is true that if you or I had been one of those commuters stuck in Fort Lee's massive traffic jams last September, and we'd had a major chunk of our day ruined by Christie's henchmen, maybe we could better appreciate the consternation the media is breathlessly fomenting over it now.  But frankly, don't we have other roads to travel?  Israel's complaining about Secretary of State John Kerry, Obamacare's nothing but a steady drumbeat of bad news, and a $1.1 trillion bill to fund our government needs our attention.  And these are just three of the innumerable political balls with potentially explosive consequences that our media is jugging in the shadows of the GWB.

Okay, so the big reason the media likes Christie's bridge scandal is because they know American drivers love complaining about traffic gridlock, and there's nothing like trashing politicians over such aggravating parts of post-modern life.  It's an easy story to cover, the scapegoats are easy to herd, and reporters know Christie isn't going to give up on his presidential aspirations without a fight.  And it could get scrappy.

Yet this is the American voter's chance to take the high road, and tell the media that it's time to move on.  How many other stories have gotten caught in the back-up?

Besides, rubbernecking only makes things worse.

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