Immigration was a hot topic in early days of the 2008 presidential campaign, but it has since been eclipsed by the economy and other weighty matters such as lapel pins, cleavage and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
In New Jersey, however, immigration has returned to the headlines, thanks to comments made by U.S. Attorney Chris Christie.
I’ll leave it to others to debate the pros and cons of what Christie said. On that topic, there is no shortage of opinions.
But from a media perspective, the evolution of this story is intriguing.
First of all, Christie made his comments on a Sunday afternoon at a meeting of a local chapter of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey. The group met at a church in Dover.
Chapter meetings of the Latino Leadership Alliance are not the sort of the events that the state’s largest newspaper covers on a regular basis, especially when they take place on Sunday afternoons in Morris County. But on this occasion, the Star-Ledger was there. Perhaps it was because Christie was the speaker, although it is not unusual for the state’s U.S. Attorney to have a public speaking engagement. Perhaps it was the topic. Prior to the meeting, event organizers had said Christie was expected to discuss local issues related to immigration. It also is possible that Christie – or his office – let the media know he planned to makes some comments that were likely to generate good copy.
Whatever the reason, the Star-Ledger was there when Christie, a law enforcement official known for his tough stance on crime, made some surprising comments on immigration. According to the newspaper, he said:
Being in this country without proper documentation is not a crime. The whole phrase of “illegal immigrant” connotes that the person, by just being here, is committing a crime.
Don’t let people make you believe that that’s a crime that the U.S. Attorney’s Office should be doing something about. It is not.
He also told the audience an undocumented immigrant is not a criminal unless that person re-enters the country after being deported. He said the problem of undocumented immigration is an administrative matter that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement should address: If there are undocumented people running around, then Immigration and Customs Enforcement should do their jobs.
Regardless of how one feels about Christie, it is tough to question his ability to use the media effectively. When his office makes arrests, it is not unusual for the press to be there, capturing photos and video images of public officials in handcuffs. Although there have been exceptions, he generally comes across well in news reports. And while he tactfully dodges questions about future political ambitions, his name continues to top the list of potential GOP gubernatorial candidates.
So it is likely that an individual as media savvy as Chris Christie would have known that his comments on immigration were bound to make headlines, especially in Morris County where a local Mayor has long been outspoken on the issue.
And that’s exactly what happened.
Following the Star-Ledger’s initial report, the story was picked up by Associated Press and made its way into several other papers. Then Morristown Mayor Donald C. Cresitello, an advocate for tougher enforcement of immigration laws, demanded that Christie resign, leading to a story in the Daily Record. Next, Christie’s office issued a statement clarifying his comments, generating another Star-Ledger story, as well as an AP report. By the end of the week, the U.S. Attorney’s comments had become the topic for columnists at the Star-Ledger, the Daily Record and politickernj.com.
When I teach public relations, one of the first things I do is have my students read several newspaper articles and try to figure out how each story got into the paper. They usually can easily identify those that stemmed from press releases or conferences, as well those in which a reporter covered breaking news such as a fire or an automobile accident.
What is not so easy to spot is when circumstances and activities below the surface lead to a news report, especially one that has legs like the Christie story. Whether planned or unplanned, this is a textbook example of how a news story evolves—a valuable lesson for public relations practitioners who need to garner news coverage, and perhaps a more valuable lesson for journalists, who need to be aware of attempts to manage and manipulate the media.