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Anatomy of a Rumor

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

He meant it. The answer was “no” all along. But Gov. Christie made a couple of claims during the Q&A part of his press conference that bear further analysis. He said that the press was careless in how they reported this and that no one believes he stoked the media hype. I agree with one part of that but disagree in part with the other.

First, it’s clear that the press still doesn’t understand what “reconsidering” meant to Christie. He was not reconsidering turning his “no” into a “yes.” He was reconsidering whether he would turn his “no” into a “maybe.”

I know this may be hard for some to understand, but Christie’s thought process is not always black and white. There are grey areas. The events of the past week gave the governor pause about whether he should simply entertain the possibility of running for president. He said he never moved off his “no” and I for one believe him.

Here’s how we know. In the “maybe” stage of a presidential campaign, your advisors start putting out feelers to key donors and campaign operatives across the country, particularly in the early primary states. This did not happen. Many of those key people made ON THE RECORD statements that they never heard from Christie’s circle. That means he never truly reached the “maybe” stage in his thinking. Got it?

Now, how about the idea that Christie – or more accurately his inner circle with the governor’s tacit approval – didn’t help fan the flames of the speculation that he was a “maybe”? Well, that’s another story.

Over the past year, any report that surfaced citing unnamed sources who claimed Christie may reconsider was immediately shot down by a definitive on-the-record statement by someone in Christie’s inner circle, usually Bill Palatucci. That was true up until a week ago – the morning of the speech at the Reagan Library in fact – when the governor’s brother was the last advisor to speak on the record about Christie’s lack of presidential ambitions for 2012.

And then those sources went dark. We didn’t hear from them again until today. Perhaps they were on a retreat at a Tibetan monastery and missed all the fun? But while they were silent, the same reporters who were quoting them on-the record to dispel the Christie rumors were suddenly using unnamed sources “close to the governor” to keep the speculation going. Coincidence? Maybe. And then again, maybe not.

Regardless, we already saw signals that the Christie camp wanted someone – i.e. the deep-pocketed donors that he was about to hit up on his cross-country fundraising tour – to get the impression he might not be a solid “no.” The TV ad by a supportive 501(c)4 and the Tom Kean revelation are all indications that the Christie camp wanted to keep that chatter alive.

I really can’t fault the governor for that. You raise a lot more money as a presidential possibility than as just the governor of New Jersey. The boatloads of cash he presumably raked in for other candidates will only help him further his political career when he calls in a favor down the road. And he is bringing some of that money back to the state GOP coffers to bank for his 2013 re-election bid. I don’t have any problem with governor wanting to prime the pump. It’s just that his camp’s active participation in fostering this speculation was probably unnecessary.

So, if the governor’s inner circle wanted that speculation to continue, how was the press careless in its reporting?

Up until the Reagan Library speech, Christie probably had not really entertained a move to “maybe” status. The speech changed that. It’s certainly understandable given the setting and the national attention it garnered. So he asked his advisers for some time alone to consider whether he even wanted to start the exploratory wheels rolling. Fair enough.

That was the point, though, at which the anonymous source reporting flew into high gear. It seems as soon as one media outlet got an unnamed source to confirm the governor was “reconsidering,” all the other outlets fell over themselves to get an unnamed source of their very own. [By the way, kudos to those New Jersey news outlets that had access to reliable anonymous sources but did not succumb to the pressure to use them.]

In that frenzy, I don’t feel that these reporters were as skeptical about their sources as they should have been. I’ve talked to a lot of New Jersey reporters during the past week and I do believe they followed all the proper journalistic procedures about using anonymous sources. I am fully confident that these sources had proven to be reliable in the past and were in a position to know what the governor was thinking. [Unlike many of the national reporters, who might as well have been talking to Kevin Bacon for as close as their sources actually were to Christie.]

Among those who did rely on unnamed sources, I don’t sense there was enough skepticism about their sources’ motivations. Why did these sources need to go off the record? Anonymous sources can have a variety of motivations. They may want to prove to reporters that they have access to information – everyone likes feeling important.  They may actually have access to information that the public needs to know (think Watergate). Or they are using the press to float a trial balloon.

We can probably knock out the first two and focus on the third. Fair enough. These sources felt it was in Christie’s strategic interest to keep this story alive. But what exactly did they say to these reporters?

Obviously, I don’t have access to reporters’ notes, but from their published articles, it appears that the most knowledgeable sources were choosing their words very judiciously. Christie was “reconsidering” his earlier no. That was it. No more, no less.

Furthermore, Christie apparently had conversations with other Republican leaders about his run. No surprise there. But the sources must have framed that information in such a way that reporters got the impression that these leaders were actively trying to get Christie into the race.  I suspect the words were parsed very carefully and reporters under pressure to “get the story” may not have spent as much time dissecting the language as they should have.

So when Christie said no to 2012 once and for all, he used the opportunity to call the media’s reporting “careless.” And while he didn’t mention Josh Margolin by name, the governor honed in on the New York Post “exclusive” that included a statement that Nancy Reagan was “prodding” him to get into the race.

What’s interesting about this particular instance is that Josh Margolin has had a good relationship with the governor. The governor was a major source for The Jersey Sting, the book Margolin wrote with former Star-Ledger colleague Ted Sherman. Christie even headlined their book launch party in March. So if anyone was going to get real inside information about this story, it would be Margolin, right? That’s what we all thought, but apparently not, since the governor called that part of his story “careless.”

Now, I may be wrong about any or all of this (although I doubt it). But the point is, if the media gets carried away with relying on anonymous sources whose motivations may be questionable, they shouldn’t be surprised if those of us who follow this stuff closely become highly skeptical of what we are reading.