Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Chris Christie and the Manhattan Oracles

Can we please start rationing the time cable news can allot to New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s “bridge scandal”? While MSNBC pundits sputter out accusations about Christie’s evident inconsistencies, Fox News cognoscenti draw tenuous parallels to Benghazi, Operation Fast and Furious, and the rollout. We who strive to follow world events, meanwhile, wonder: what happened to, well, everything else?

For those fortunate enough to remain unaware, back in August 2013, somebody in New Jersey government closed three of the four access lanes connecting Fort Lee, NJ, to the George Washington Bridge. Many of Fort Lee’s approximately 50,000 residents work in Manhattan, and closing these lanes mired the entire city in day-long traffic jams. School buses couldn’t transport kids on the first day of school. Ambulances couldn’t reach the dying.

Broadcast nightly news attempts to keep this story in its appropriate context. America’s few remaining newpapers have treated this story in detail while also addressing other developing news. And internet newshounds can simply choose to exclude Christie stories if they wish. But the preponderance of Americans today get their news from cable today, which they often drop into for bite-sized nuggets, seldom staying for full coverage.

Right now, that means extra-strength doses of Chris Christie, whose unusually long press conferences and public appearances get combed like holy writ. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow has expressed such umbrage that, on Monday and Tuesday, she dedicated nearly her entire show to “Bridgegate,” sparing three minutes per night for the chemical spill which rendered 300,000 West Virginians’ tap water unsafe for human consumption, and now jeopardizes metro Cincinnati.

(Late edit: on Tuesday, Maddow, a longtime LGBT spokespundit, also dedicated two minutes to the court ruling vacating Oklahoma’s gay marriage ban. That’s forty-three minutes of Chris Christie, twelve minutes for commercials, and five minutes for the remainder of world events.)

Meanwhile, Fox News stalwart Steve Doocy has spent morning after morning correlating Governor Christie’s reported mismanagement with various conspiracy theories against President Obama. Doocy, and many other Fox contributors, concede the heart of Christie’s opponents’ accusations, but assert that his transgressions are less awful than President Obama’s. Essentially, they declare some malfeasance acceptable in realpolitik.

CNN, with its history of trying to avoid taking sides, remains the only American news network to keep this story in perspective. They remain the only network dedicating significant airtime to the Afghanistan war, conflicting complaints about John Kerry out of Jerusalem, and the ex-cop who shot another man in a Florida theatre. After comparing CNN’s coverage to that emerging from everywhere else, I think I’ve found the link.

CNN is based in Atlanta, Georgia. Every other network’s home news bureau lives in Manhattan.

All three broadcast networks that have nightly news originate their broadcast from Manhattan. The same holds for MSNBC and Fox, plus partisan commentators like Rush Limbaugh and Jon Stewart. They probably had staffers caught in the Fort Lee traffic purgatory. While these networks have bureaus in other cities and countries, the anchors, editors, and senior production staff work in Manhattan. Many probably cross the George Washington Bridge every single workday.

Even seeming opponents work so close together, they share important geographical presumptions. MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell and Fox’s Bill O’Reilly excoriate each other on air regularly, but their offices are so close together, they could lean out their windows and converse via bullhorn. Thus, seemingly opposite opinion vendors actually share more prior assumptions than their viewers in Minneapolis or Phoenix.

This has caused an unacceptable narrowing of discussion regarding world affairs. That which impacts high-rise news editors personally, merits lengthy analysis on valuable airtime. The New Jersey bridge folderol, which appears important but regional to viewers in the provinces, assumes world-crushing proportions when viewed through Manhattan blinders. Because Manhattan news studios live with it directly, in ways we rustics don’t.

Not that we should jettison the issue. Governor Christie’s well-publicized Presidential ambitions made this story a legitimate national concern. Either Governor Christie personally ordered multiple acts of political pettiness, including “Bridgegate,” or he exercises so little oversight of his staff that individual appointees run their offices like feudal domains. We deserve information, because this smacks uncomfortably of Irangate-style political mismanagement.

But we deserve information distributed in ways that reflect the networks’ national audiences. Gothamite provincialism is downright legendary, and the concentration of “national” news networks’ editorial offices in one city propagates that attitude. TV analysts wonder why citizens tune out news, and remain ignorant of current affairs. Perhaps it’s because the Manhattanite gatekeepers remain ignorant of their audience.

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