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How the Media Marketed Chris Christie's Straight Shooter Charade

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"Chris Christie is someone who is magical in the way politicians can be magical." -- Time's Mark Halperin appearing on Meet The Press, November 10 2013.

A political bombshell detonated in my home state of New Jersey yesterday when published emails and text messages revealed that Gov. Chris Christie's deputy chief of staff conspired with a Christie transportation appointee to create a four-day traffic jam last September, allegedly to punish a local Democratic mayor who refused to endorse the governor's re-election. The unfolding drama not only raises doubts about Christie's political future but also about the way the mainstream press has presented him over the years.

The widening dirty tricks scandal features patronage and political retribution wrapped in an unseemly culture of intimidation. In sharp contrast, the national political press has spent the last four years presenting, and even marketing, Christie as an above-the-fray politician who thrives on competence.

He's been relentlessly and adoringly depicted as some sort of Straight Shooter. He's an authentic and bipartisan Every Man, a master communicator, and that rare politician who cuts through the stagecraft and delivers hard truths. Christie's coverage has been a long-running, and rather extreme, case of personality trumping substance.

But now the bridge bombshell casts all of that flattering coverage into question. How could the supposedly astute Beltway press corps spend four years selling Christie as a Straight Shooter when his close aides did things like orchestrate a massive traffic jam apparently to punish the governor's political foes? When an appointee joked in texts about school buses being trapped in the political traffic backup? How could Christie be a Straight Shooter when he's been caught peddling lies about the unfolding scandal and now claims he was misled about what people close to him were up to?

The truth is Christie was never the Straight Shooter that political reporters and pundits made him out to be. Not even close, as I'll detail below. Instead, the Straight Shooter story represented appealing fiction for the press. They tagged him as "authentic" and loved it when he got into yelling matches with voters.

Media Matters recently rounded up some of media's Christie sweet talk, which is particularly enlightening to review in the wake of the Trenton scandal developments:

In the last month alone, TIME magazine has declared that Christie governed with "kind of bipartisan dealmaking that no one seems to do anymore." MSNBC's Morning Joe called the governor "different," "fresh," and "sort of a change from public people that you see coming out of Washington." In a GQ profile, Christie was deemed "that most unlikely of pols: a happy warrior," while National Journal described him as "the Republican governor with a can-do attitude" who "made it through 2013 largely unscathed. No scandals, no embarrassments or gaffes." ABC's Barbara Walters crowned Christie as one of her 10 Most Fascinating People, casting him as a "passionate and compassionate" politician who cannot lie.

Note that when Christie last year easily won re-election against a weak Democratic opponent (via record low voter turnout), the Beltway press treated the win as some sort of national coronation ("Chris Christie is a rock star" announced CNN's Carol Costello), with endless cable coverage and a round of softball interviews on the Sunday political talk circuit.

Here's Time from last November's celebration: "He's a workhorse with a temper and a tongue, the guy who loves his mother and gets it done." That, of course, is indistinguishable from a Christie office press release. But it's been that way for years.

I detailed some of that absurdly fawning coverage in 2010 and 2011, but then I largely stopped writing about the phenomena simply because it became clear that the press was entirely and unapologetically committed to peddling Christie press clippings. They liked the GOP story and it was one they wanted to tell, just like they had been wed to the John-McCain-is-a-Maverick story. So they told it (selectively) over and over and over and over, regardless of the larger context about Christie actual behavior and his record as governor. (At one point under Christie in 2012, New Jersey's unemployment hit a two year high that ranked among the highest in the U.S.)

But again, the dreamt-up Straight Shooter storyline never reflected reality. Here are several examples drawn from just a 10-month stretch during Christie's first term:

*In August of 2010, the state was shocked to discover it had narrowly missed out on $400 million worth of desperately needed education aid from the federal government because New Jersey's application for the grant was flawed. Christie initially tried to blame the Obama administration but that claim was shown to be false.

Christie's own Education Commissioner then publicly blamed Christie for the failure to land the money. He insisted the governor, who famously feuds with the state's teacher unions, had placed that political battle and his right-wing credentials ahead of securing the federal funds and that Christie had told him the "money was not worth it" to the state if it meant he had to cooperate with teachers.

*In November 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice inspector general found that while serving as U.S. attorney, Christie routinely billed taxpayers for luxury hotels on trips and failed to follow federal travel regulations.

*That December, Christie chose to leave New Jersey for a family vacation in Disney World even though forecasters had warned a blizzard was barreling towards the state, and even though Christie's No. 2 was already out of the state visiting her ailing father. Worse, in the wake of the epic storm, Christie refused to return home early to help the state deal with the historic blizzard that left portions of the state buried under 30 inches of snow and paralyzed for days. (The storm was so severe the Garden State had to appeal to FEMA for $53 million in disaster aid.)

When Christie did return, he held a press conference and blamed state officials who didn't escape to the Sunshine State for doing such a poor job managing the state's emergency response. Bottom line: Christie said he wouldn't have changed a thing because "I had a great five days with my children."

*In May of 2011, Christie flew in a brand new, $12 million state-owned helicopter to watch his son play a high school baseball game. After landing on a nearby football field, Christie was driven 300 feet in a black car with tinted windows to the baseball diamond. When he was done watching five innings, Christie boarded the helicopter and flew home. The trip cost $2,500 and Christie initially refused to reimburse the state for the expenses.

Keep in mind, these are all Christie tales that reporters and pundits almost pathologically omitted from their glowing profiles in recent years. Why? None of them fit within the narrow confines of the established narrative, so they were simply ignored.

Now with Christie's political career reeling thanks to a shockingly vindictive and partisan scandal, it's time for the press to drop the Straight Shooter charade.

Crossposted at Media Matters for America.