This is how Rachel Maddow introduced a guest on her nightly cable news show in January: “Any time you see a story on national TV that starts in a small town, odds are the story began with local reporters who would not give up, and who reported it right and aggressively, even though it always stirs stuff up on their hometown beat.”
She was welcoming Shawn Boburg, the reporter whose “scoop” about politically motivated lane closings disguised as a “traffic study” stirred up enough “stuff” to earn its own moniker — “Bridgegate” — the scandal that complicates New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s presidential aspirations.
Democrats obviously enjoy watching a prominent Republican twisting in the political wind, but for a nonpartisan watchdog like the Better Government Association, “Bridgegate” reflects a key mission in a healthy democracy: Shining a light on government and holding public officials accountable.
Boburg’s newspaper, The Record, reports on northern New Jersey, including the city of Fort Lee, whose residents bore the brunt of last fall’s traffic nightmare when Christie aides ordered unnecessary lane closings on an entrance to a major bridge, in apparent retaliation for the Fort Lee mayor’s refusal to endorse Christie’s re-election.
The story actually began with a complaint about traffic tie-ups to the Record’s publisher, who passed it on to the newsroom, including Boburg, whose “beat” includes the agency that operates the bridge.
Boburg used basic reporting tools — reliable sources and a thorough document search — to connect the paralyzing traffic jam to Christie’s inner circle.
The “smoking gun” is this blunt email exchange between Christie’s deputy chief of staff and a loyalist at the bridge agency:
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
Boburg’s story went national, and viral, for weeks.
“Local reporters made that possible,” Maddow told her viewers, “and we in the national press owe them credit for opening this amazing can of worms.”
Boburg shares the back story in an email: “Although I had an inkling from the start that this was more than a ‘traffic study,’ it was tough getting any information at all during the two months before Christie’s election in November.
“Requests for comment from the bridge agency were routinely ignored at the direction of Christie appointees, document requests were dragged out or flat-out denied, and the governor belittled reporters who asked him questions about whether his office had any involvement.”
But Boburg stayed on the story like a bulldog and eventually broke it wide open in January.
“It’s satisfying,” he says, “to show the world there really was something to a story that, in its early stages, was dismissed as ‘much ado about traffic cones’ or waved off as the errant pursuit of a conspiracy theorist.”
As someone who loves newspapers, and worked at this one — the Sun-Times — nearly 40 years ago, I admire Boburg and the Record because they’re still committed to serious news coverage at a time when many print publications are reacting to economic challenges by drastically downsizing or disappearing altogether.
The Record’s lost only 10 percent of its news staff in recent years, and still maintains a “beat” system that facilitates the kind of enterprise reporting Boburg does.
Boburg’s already collected one national award for “Bridgegate,” he could win several more, and he’ll be in Chicago as the BGA’s “special guest” on May 6, when we recognize some of the best investigative reporting in the Midwest at our annual awards reception.
If you’d like to join us, details are at www.bettergov.org.
The event is a good opportunity to hear Boburg’s story, thank him and the award winners for their important work, see another old friend, guest speaker Jim Avila of ABC News, and celebrate watchdogs everywhere who fight for good government.
There aren’t as many of us these days, so we all have to work a little harder.
But no worries — it’s a labor of love.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-386-9097.