A Tale of Two Scandals

by John Fund
The media overreact on Christie, but underreact on the IRS.

Yes, liberal bias does play a role in explaining why — as Newsbusters.org reports — the major networks have had 44 times more coverage of Chris Christie’s “Bridgegate” scandal than they have had on anything related to the IRS political-targeting scandal that began last May.

Jonathan Alter, speaking on MSNBC, has dismissed the comparison by saying that “there are not ongoing revelations [in the IRS story]. If there were ongoing revelations in the IRS matter, that would still be a story.” He made his claim only four days after news broke that the Justice Department had chosen a significant Obama donor to head its investigation of the IRS, creating the obvious perception of a conflict of interest.

But it’s also true that a large part of the difference in coverage is owing simply to the laziness of journalists, for whom anything connected to a future presidential election trumps delving deeply into more complicated topics.

That laziness has extended to the “bullying” issue, i.e., whether Governor Christie is part of the long New Jersey tradition of overbearing political bosses. New Jersey voters are split, with the latest Quinnipiac Poll finding that 40 percent of those surveyed think he is more of a bully, while 54 percent think he is more of a leader (his overall approval rating is 55 percent). 

But being a bully is often in the eye of the beholder, and a strong case can be made that some New Jersey legislators are themselves verging on bullying in their Bridgegate probe. Compare how a top suspect in Bridgegate, and one in the IRS scandal, were treated by both investigators and the media.

David Wildstein, a top Port Authority executive involved in the September lane closings near the George Washington Bridge, took the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination when he appeared under oath before a New Jersey Assembly committee last week. Committee members kept badgering him for answers, despite knowing he would continue to take the Fifth. He then departed the hearing room with members of the audience yelling “Shame!” The committee, chaired by Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who is also chairman of New Jersey’s Democratic State Committee, then instantly voted him in contempt.

I have no legal or ethical problem with what was done, but why were the normally high-minded liberal supporters of due process and civil liberties so silent as to Wildstein’s treatment?

Consider the tender manner with which liberals insisted that Lois Lerner, the director of the IRS Exempt Organizations Division, be treated during last May’s House Government Oversight Committee hearings chaired by Representative Darrell Issa (R., Calif.). Representative Elijah Cummings (Md.), the ranking Democrat, said that because Lerner had invoked her Fifth Amendment rights, further questioning of her was inappropriate: “The chairman issued a subpoena forcing her to appear; made her stand and swear an oath; and challenged her Fifth Amendment assertion by posing questions to her anyway.” In the end, Lerner had to assert or reference her Fifth Amendment right only three times at the congressional hearing. In New Jersey, Wildstein was forced to repeat his Fifth Amendment mantra before state legislators a total of 15 times. 

A full 37 days after Lerner had asserted her Fifth Amendment rights, the Oversight Committee reconvened to consider and debate a resolution declaring her invocation invalid. At this proceeding, Representative Cummings asked that “the committee first take the preliminary commonsense step of holding a hearing to obtain testimony from legal experts before requiring committee members to vote on this very significant constitutional question. Otherwise, as a member of Congress who has sworn to uphold the Constitution, I cannot in good conscience support this resolution.” Cummings and every other committee Democrat voted against the resolution even though it made no criminal allegation against Lerner. Eight months later, a resolution holding her in contempt of the full House has still not been voted on.

Compare that with the case of Assemblyman Wisniewski, who said to his fellow committee members, before they voted on a finding of criminal contempt by Wildstein: “I just wanted to be clear; for the record — and I’ll make the ruling as Chair — there is no opinion as to whether this trumps the Constitution or doesn’t trump the Constitution.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, the FBI has found no evidence that crimes were committed during the IRS scandal, even though it has failed to interview many key witnesses and there are clear examples of taxpayer information having being leaked on at least a couple of occasions. Democrats assert that, even if there is ever found to have been some political retribution against Tea Party groups, it was deplorable but not illegal.

But New Jersey Democrats are singing a different tune about Bridgegate. When asked by Paul Mulshine of the Newark Star-Ledger, state senator Ray Lesniak, a former chairman of the Democratic State Committee, couldn’t name a single law that Christie aides or appointees broke despite their deplorable behavior. Yet he insisted: “There’s gotta be dozens of state and federal criminal-law violations.”

Harvey Silverglate, a prominent civil-liberties lawyer and author of the book Three Felonies a Day, notes that in 2010 the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the sweeping “honest services” federal statute that allowed prosecutors to go after public officials over (in the words of the statute) “any scheme or artifice to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.” Silverglate told the Star-Ledger that the Supreme Court “ruled you have to show some kind of bribe or payments; [in Bridgegate] it sounds like we’re talking about political payback.”

None of this is to excuse the callous and cruel behavior of Christie aides, or — if he is found to have been deceptive in proclaiming his non-involvement — that of Governor Christie himself. But it should make us question the intensity and zeal with which the scandal is being pursued. Michael Murphy, the former top prosecutor in New Jersey’s Morris County and a former Democratic candidate for governor, told me the atmosphere in Trenton now is “a feeding frenzy,” with many reporters convinced that “this is their Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein moment.”

Some journalists are now having second thoughts. Former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw said yesterday that the coverage was too much: ”I do think, across the country, however, when they’re looking at long-term unemployment, and they’re looking at the uncertainty of the ObamaCare, they’re saying, ‘You’ve got to move on, guys.’”

Surprisingly, even some MSNBC hosts are agreeing. “The story can now officially be labelled tedious,” Mike Barnicle admitted on Morning Joe yesterday. “It’s so overblown. Again, if nothing occurs, nothing comes out, the story dies.” His colleague Joe Scarborough agreed: “I didn’t want to put it at the top of the show, because I thought it was tedious. But Mika [Brzezinski] said some things broke yesterday, where he was, the timeline.” That timeline consumed 18 minutes of Morning Joe’s coverage at the top of the prime 8 a.m. hour.

Give Mika Brzezinski credit for believing in the story. On Monday, when Time magazine senior political analyst Mark Halperin said that President Obama has never undergone an intense media grilling on Benghazi and the IRS the likes of what Chris Christie has seen on Bridgegate, she was quick to cut him off. Bringing up Benghazi and the IRS is “flailing for some sort of distraction. It’s Chris Christie. It’s New Jersey. Stick to that story.”

Indeed. For all too much of the media, they have their story. And they’re sticking to it.

— John Fund is a national-affairs columnist for National Review Online.