Garth Brooks, Chris Christie and the News Media

Back in 2000 when country music superstar Garth Brooks took part in New York Mets spring training to raise money for his children’s foundation, he quickly learned that major league pitching was not the only thing to which he had to adjust. Although Brooks was used to dealing with the press as an entertainer, he discovered that professional athletes have a much different relationship with the media.

“There are no reporters in Brooks’s dressing room when he goes from town to town on a concert tour,” Tyler Kepner wrote in a New York Times article about the musician’s excursion into the world of baseball. “Fans do not know where he stays on the road. He gives interviews when he has a specific reason to do so. ‘If I don’t want to be got to, no one can touch me,’ Brooks said.”

Brooks’s story comes to mind this month because of a series of news reports, columns and blog postings about another individual who now finds himself dealing with the press under a different set of rules – Republican gubernatorial candidate Chris Christie.

A widely circulated theory about Christie is that, in dealing with the news media, he has not completely adjusted from his former role as U.S. Attorney for New Jersey — which allowed him to set and control the agenda — to his new role as a candidate where everything is always on the table.

On the surface it sounds logical, especially after digesting the coverage about Christie’s reaction to charges that he has awarded lucrative no-bid contracts in return for favors. Together, the news reports painted a picture of a candidate who was thin-skinned, angry at the media, and unfamiliar with what comes with the territory when one runs for political office. As Alfred Doblin wrote in The Record, “Candidate Christie still is not ready for prime time.”

But there is another theory that also makes sense when applied to Christie’s dealings with the media – and that is Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s theory about storylines.  Jamieson, an author who is regarded as an expert on political campaigns, contends that there are times when a storyline is so believable that its “facts” become taken for granted. As a result, journalists fail to question and challenge these storylines and end up producing news reports that support them.

In her book The Press Effect, Jamieson provides a series of examples to support her theory, such as unchallenged embellishments contained in the Willie Horton ad that was used in the 1988 presidential campaign. She describes these examples as “instances in which reporters failed to investigate and locate the facts that would have undercut the coherence of a story being told because the lens they adopted made fact-finding seem unnecessary or irrelevant.”

Those are strong words and they are not likely to sit well with members of the media.

But let’s take a look at the Christie case. Is he really having trouble adjusting to his new role as a candidate? Or is this just another storyline that has been taken for granted and now is being supported by news reports?

There are compelling arguments on both sides of this issue, and this is not something likely to be proved conclusively one way or the other. But it does make for good copy and great political theater. And maybe that’s what New Jersey needs to get the citizenry interested and involved in the race for Governor, so they learn where the candidates stand on the critical issues confronting our state as opposed to learning — as we did during Chris Christie’s April 6 press conference — that he was wearing a blue and orange tie because it was opening day for the New York Mets — the same New York Mets that once taught Garth Brooks a valuable lesson about dealing with the news media.

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