There have been many curious editorial endorsements for political candidates by major newspapers around the nation, but none has ever been as bizarre as New Jersey's most prestigious paper, the Star-Ledger, on October 20. It slapped Gov. Chris Christie around the playground while bizarrely recommending him for re-election.
If this was an endorsement, heaven protect Christie from attack. Particularly revealing was the comment that Christie is "much better at politics than he is at governing," followed by a relentless litany of his failures in leadership:
The governor's claim to have fixed the state's budget is fraudulent. New Jersey's credit rating has dropped during his term, reflecting Wall Street's judgment that he has dug the hole even deeper. He has no plan to finance transit projects ... now that he has nearly drained the dedicated funds he inherited from Gov. Jon Corzine. His ego is entertaining, but it's done damage as well. By removing two qualified justices from the Supreme Court without good cause, he threatened the independence of judges at all levels, and provoked a partisan stalemate that has left two vacant seats on the high court. This was a power grab gone wrong.
And that was the nice stuff.
Our own view is that Christie is overrated. His spin is way ahead of his substance... The property tax burden has grown sharply on his watch. He is hostile to low-income families, raising their tax burden and sabotaging efforts to build affordable housing. He's been a catastrophe on the environment, draining $1 billion from clean energy funds and calling a cease-fire in the state's fight against climate change.
Nor was the paper impressed by his civility to President Obama -- an image that clearly is hurting with the extremists in the Republican Party as he prepares to run for president in 2016 -- or his response to Hurricane Sandy.
After writing the opposition attack so clearly, the newspaper unashamedly endorsed him. Normally that would suggest his Democratic opponent, NJ state senator Barbara Buono, must be the devil incarnate.
Hardly so, according to the same editorial. While conceding that she is too progressive for the newspaper's taste and a champion of public school teachers over the charters it prefers, the editorial adds:
"As governor, she would allow gay couples to marry, raise the minimum wage and stop the baseless attacks on the courts. She would raise taxes on incomes greater than $1 million, and restore at least some of the property tax rebates that Christie cut. She would also restore funding for Planned Parenthood, and sign strong gun legislation. On each of those issues, we are with her. She had an impressive run in the Legislature, and deserves praise for being the only Democrat with the moxie to step in front of this train.
That concluding line in the editorial unveiled its real purpose. Christie was the unstoppable train (no jokes about the caboose) and the newspaper would be foolish, if ethical, to attempt to derail him.
The editorial said more about how the Star-Ledger hedges its political bets than about the candidates in the race.
Playing it safe is no longer an unusual stance for the once defiant fourth estate of Watergate memory. The weakness of traditional newspapers in a modern media age, with shrinking readership and diminished influence on public affairs, is taking a toll -- less space, less staff, more catering to advertisers and more tacking to a winning or a neutral position.
It has led to establishment media that is very establishment, hating to be on the losing side whatever the principles in play. Yet, lingering in the background is the annoyance of journalistic ethics. So we find newspapers dancing on the edge, reading the polls of inevitability and demonstrating to New Jersey voters how they could nail Christie as a bad administrator and still justify supporting him.
The Star-Ledger actually ignored the most crass political case against Christie. It would be hard to talk around how his placement of political ambition ahead of true leadership has cost the state's taxpayers $24 million.
Christie set up a special election for U.S. Senate only two weeks ahead of his November governor's race. He knew Newark Mayor Cory Booker would not only win, but also bring a lot of Democrats to the polls. If that election were held in November, the law would have required Booker's name, instead of Christie's, to appear atop the ballot. That would cut into, and maybe eliminate, Christie's margin -- and a giant margin remains essential to convince Republicans on the national stage that Christie could bring in enough votes during a national contest to quiet tea party grumbles. After all, many in the GOP still hope he represents a more mature approach to presidential politics than the people who shut the government down for 16 days.
Yet somehow, the Star-Ledger signaled that a canny politician who is "hostile to low-income families," fraudulent on the budget and "a catastrophe on the environment" is still a better choice for the White House than others in the GOP.
Practiced wordsmiths can sell anything.
Dominique Paul Noth served as senior editor for all feature coverage at the Milwaukee Journal after decades as its film and drama critic, then was appointed special assistant to the publisher and the company's first online producer. For the past decade he was editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and website, milwaukeelabor.org. He now writes as an independent journalist on culture and politics.
Illustration: Flickr user Donkey Hotey, creative commons licensed.