The Real Winner of Chris Christie's Bridgeghazi-Gate: Local Newspapers

National Journal

The Bergen County Record is a medium-sized paper, with a daily print circulation of around 150,000 and around 200 reporters in the newsroom.

The real reason The Record deserves most of the credit is because it made it a story in the first place — in September.

But it completely dominated the news last week, breaking the leaked emails that incriminated the Christie administration in the George Washington Bridge lane closures. It had all the workings of a great tale: political corruption and revenge against the universally salient backdrop of traffic congestion. And it hits on the sweetest spot of local coverage: local corruption that makes national shockwaves.

They took a story which, in September, was banal on its face — a traffic jam in New Jersey, no way! — and  started pulling strands that could unravel the beginning stitches of a presidential campaign. And The Record has been receiving most of the accolades this week, even though national outlets like The Wall Street Journal invested heavy reporting time into the story (and are arguably also worthy of the credit of "owning" part of the story).

The Record published its story about the damning emails 20 or so minutes ahead of The New York Times, which had its own independent report. But that's the superficial reason why The Record "won" the day.

The real reason The Record deserves most of the credit is because it made it a story in the first place — in September. In the very first column on the issue, The Record quoted Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich as saying, "Now I'm beginning to wonder if there's something I did wrong. Am I being sent some sort of message?"

And the paper highlighted the key suspicions:

...[I]t doesn't take much to get the rumor mill going. The Road Warrior phone was ringing all Thursday afternoon with equal numbers of calls from road-weary bridge commuters and conspiracy theorists who insisted that the Port was punishing Sokolich — either for failing to endorse Governor Christie's election bid or for pushing through a $500 million, 47-story high-rise housing development near the bridge, or for failing to support the Port's last toll hike.

"Those two tollbooths were purposely closed without notice to anyone," said a source close to the situation. "There is absolutely no legitimate traffic-safety rationale for this change."

"I have to give them credit," Wendell Jamieson, the editor on The New York Times' story, told Margaret Sullivan, the paper's public editor. "Who would have thought that something as mundane as a traffic jam in New Jersey could explode into the biggest political story of the new year?"

The email revelations last week were the culmination, not the first step, in the outing of this scandal. Yes, this is now a national story, and national outlets will further the narrative. But The Record set the events in motion.

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