Some observers were quick to compare New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s “Bridgegate” scandal to the inappropriate targeting of conservative activist group by the Obama administration’s Internal Revenue Service. Both involve the abuse of power to punish political opponents, and stunned, angry, saddened executives who blamed their underlings. However, the media’s reactions to the two scandals have been quite different.
The New York Times, for example, ran a “Room for Debate” forum asking contributors to debate whether or not Christie should resign as a result of the bridge scandal. “Despite his contrite apology on Thursday, and his dismissal of a top aide, do Governor Christie’s actions, or inactions, justify an end to his political career?” the paper wondered.
The Times’ coverage in the wake of the IRS-targeting revelations was a bit more nuanced. “I.R.S. Focus on Conservatives Gives G.O.P. an Issue to Seize On,” read the paper’s A1 headline on May 13, 2013, just days after the scandal broke. Other outlets seized on similar storylines. “IRS scandal: GOP looks to seize election opportunity,” wrote CBS News. USA Today ran with: “GOP seizes on IRS scandal to press agenda.”
On May 15, New York’s Frank Rich called the IRS targeting a “White House mishap.” Republican seizers-on were “the Boys Who Cried Wolf.” The “GOP overreach” angle caught on quickly. “Will Republicans Screw Up Again? Some Are Already Overreaching,” pondered Roll Call’s Stu Rothenberg on May 20. “The IRS is a good political issue for Republicans. But are they in danger of overreaching on it?” asked the Washington Post.
The Christie scandal landed on the cover of The New Yorker. The magazine’s cover story following the IRS revelations was about “urban cyclists.” Obviously, The New Yorker has a local purview that makes the Christie story more relevant than a Washington-based scandal, but that didn’t stop the magazine from running a Halloween-themed cover on the government shutdown depicting John Boehner and Ted Cruz as ghosts haunting the Capitol.
Some in the media have been rather incredulous about Christie’s denying involvement, or have set an exceptionally high bar for the governor to clear his name. Meet the Press host David Gregory wonders: “Isn’t the burden for [Christie] to prove he didn’t create an atmosphere where underlings thought this was okay?” Such questions certainly weren’t being asked (outside the conservative media) about President Obama in the wake of the IRS revelations, even though Obama’s claims to have had no knowledge of the targeting allegations under investigation seemed equally suspect, and he has publicly castigated spending from outside political groups and condemned a key Supreme Court decision that made it easier.
Liberals have criticized Fox News for apparently being uninterested in the Christie scandal — probably a fair point, if a bit hypocritical given the way that MSNBC covered the “phony” IRS scandal. The network that recently fired one of its hosts for suggesting someone defecate in Sarah Palin’s mouth cut away from one of the first congressional hearings on IRS targeting so that host Chris Jansing could ask a Democratic lawmaker if he thought Republicans were “more interested in going after the White House than they are in getting to the bottom of this.”
As far as Christie is concerned, left-wing pundits such as Joan Walsh have moved on from pronouncing the death of his presidential aspirations to wondering, à la the New York Times, if he’s also finished as governor. Walsh could turn out to be right, but in the meantime, keep an eye out for any “Democrats Seize on Bridge Scandal” headlines and laments of partisan overreach. So far, they’re as scarce as quick trips across the George Washington Bridge.
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.