The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why the media paid more attention to Chris Christie than John Kitzhaber

Traffic moves over the Hudson River and across the George Washington Bridge between New York City and in Fort Lee, N.J., on Dec. 17, 2013. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Critics of the "mainstream/lamestream media" (hooray, that's us!) have begun to crystallize around a new point of fury. Why, the conservative site Newsbusters asks, did the media "obsess" over the travails of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) but "barely recognize the name" of just-resigned Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D)? The unsubtle suggestion is that it has to do with those parenthetical letters after their names. Twitter, being Twitter, took up the charge.

There are actually a lot of good reasons why Kitzhaber's mess flew under the national radar until the Oregonian called for his resignation last week. But let's start with Christie.

Until there was a smoking gun, the national media largely ignored the bridge scandal, too.

At the end of 2013, allegations that Christie's office had shut down the George Washington Bridge in a fit of political pique had not attracted much regional attention, much less national. Reporters like the Wall Street Journal's Ted Mann were very well versed in what was happening — Mann reported on it within days — but many folks were not.

The scandal exploded nationally when the "traffic problems in Fort Lee" email message sent between two of Christie's top aides was revealed. That message was the first tangible evidence that there might be some truth to the Fort Lee mayor's finger-pointing at Christie and his team, and that's when it became national news.

Similarly, what's been happening with Kitzhaber has been a focus of regional attention, but it wasn't until his position was genuinely threatened with the Oregonian editorial that it became something of national interest.

It's fair to note that the Kitzhaber charges were much closer to him personally than the Christie ones — there is still no evidence that Christie was at all involved in the lane closures — when both were still beneath the surface of national attention. So why did that discrepancy occur?

John Kitzhaber hasn't been mentioned as a presidential candidate.

I'm not sure how much more explicit we need to be. Christie is/was a national figure, riding high off of a strong reelection bid that was seen as a launching point for his 2016 efforts. And then, that email.

Should possible presidential candidates be held to a higher standard of scrutiny than governors? Yes.

New Jersey is a much larger state, in a much larger region.

Nine million people live in New Jersey. Four million people live in Oregon.

New Jersey's governor also has a role in determining the fate of a much larger constituency: residents of New York City, an additional 8.4 million people. The George Washington Bridge access lane closure wasn't just something that affected the 36,000 people in Fort Lee. It leveraged Christie's authority within the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, an organization that is integral to the New York metropolitan area.

Which brings us to a point made by Bloomberg's Dave Weigel:

Much more of the national media is based near New Jersey than Oregon.

I think every reporter wishes he or she could have been the one to break open the Kitzhaber story. It's a good one! But reporters in D.C. and New York are better-sourced in D.C. and New York politics and institutions — just as the Oregonian is better sourced in Oregon.

It's to the Oregonian's credit  — and the credit of other local outlets like Willamette Week — that they were on the story for weeks. If the Oregonian had the footprint of the New York Times, it's a national story out of the box. It doesn't.

No media outlet is perfect; the media at large isn't perfect, either. It's an imperfect system designed to surface important information, and here, it worked.

Oh, one more point.

It took about three months for Christie to go national. It took three weeks longer for Kitzhaber.

Willamette Week first reported on Kitzhaber's fiancee's questionable behavior Oct. 8; the story went national on Thursday/Friday.

The New Jersey bridge closures happened in September 2013, with Mann's article on Oct. 1. The emails went public Jan. 9. That's 100 days, as opposed to the Kitzhaber scandal's 121 days.

Was some massive conspiracy afoot, granting Kitzhaber an extra three weeks? If so, no one told us.

This post originally referred to the "Fort Lee" message as a text. It was an email.