The mainstream media don’t get New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. They think he is a bully. Voters don’t — by a margin of 49 to 26 percent. The media think he’s been mortally wounded by the bridge scandal. Voters haven’t yet changed their minds about him. The media think Republicans outside New Jersey hate him. He’s still ahead in polls, however premature.
Let’s leave aside who is “right,” since we are talking about perceptions. Let’s also put aside whether Christie will win the 2016 presidential nomination. Instead, it is worth asking why the media’s perception of Christie is so different from the public’s.
Normally, one might say the press is out to get a top-tier GOP presidential contender. And maybe they are. But I think something else is going on.
Beyond political bias, the great shortcomings the mainstream media have are cultural and social biases. College-educated, politically correct, well-heeled and well-spoken, unreligious and pro-choice, these are people who generally don’t look or talk like Christie, nor do they have people in their social circles who do. The only reference they may have is a character out of a Martin Scorsese movie. It’s an extreme mismatch of habits and style, in the same way that virtually none of media can personally identify with an evangelical who prays every day, goes to church weekly and takes the Bible literally. In short, they lack empathy for such people and, therefore, misjudge how others relate to them.
Just as they took George W. Bush — the reader, wartime innovator and now painter — as a rube and not intellectually curious, they take Christie’s public jousting with media and opponents as “bullying.” Do the media consider Obama a bully because he criticizes the media and says mean things about Republicans? Oh no! Not the sophisticated, urbane fellow.
Hillary Clinton can keep a “hit list,” and Obama can reward friends and excoriate enemies, but they will never be “bullies.” They are tough, determined, not “patsies” and many other admirable things, but it is Christie, the media insist, who operates with “fear” and retribution. Evidence is beside the point. Bipartisan achievement is irrelevant. It is simply self-evident to the media elite. Their expectation of a politician is someone who is TV-ready, hair-perfect, voice-modulated and emotionally muted. The bridge story only confirms their stereotype of an ethnic, Northeastern pol — one who outwits and shows up fellow journalists on a daily basis.
Ordinary people may, if we take the polling seriously, have the opposite reaction. They don’t think ordinary pols are poised or impressive; ordinary people think they are too slick by half and mostly liars. In Christie, they see someone not like every other pol, and, for that reason alone, they are entertained and engaged. They like him. They are or know people like him. They want to yell at other pols so they are pleased to have him do it on their behalf. He is funny and irreverent, everything bland pols and media hosts (smiles painted on, every hair and utterance arranged in advance) are not.
So, in addition to any political bias, there is a mismatch between the media and Christie and between the media and the people who like Christie. That’s why the mainstream media are horrible at assessing how Christie comes across to ordinary voters. They judge him by metrics ordinary voters don’t. When Christie “loses” the media elite, he’s not in trouble; if he were to lose the regular Jersey guys and gals, he would be. So far, that hasn’t happened.