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Democracy depends on dogged journalism at the local level

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If you type “Shawn Boburg” into your Web browser address bar, a strange thing happens. Mr. Boburg is a reporter for The Record newspaper in Bergen County, N.J. But ShawnBoburg.com sends visitors to The Record’s rival, Newark’s Star-Ledger.

The man who bought the rights to Boburg’s online name — and who presumably engineered the nasty little redirect — is David Wildstein, who recently became the country’s most high-profile political appointee. After his high school classmate Chris Christie was elected governor of New Jersey in 2009, Mr. Wildstein was appointed to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for a highly paid position that, conveniently, had no job description.

Mr. Wildstein, who has since resigned, was held in contempt the other day by a state legislature committee for refusing to answer questions about his role in the four-day traffic disaster that gridlocked the town of Fort Lee, N.J., last September.

According to reporting in The Record, Mr. Wildstein has made a habit of buying the Web addresses of people who cross his path in New Jersey politics — including the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor in 2012 and a mid-level official at the Federal Aviation Administration who helped forge a firefighting agreement with the Port Authority that Mr. Wildstein disliked.

While he was at the Port Authority, Mr. Wildstein bought the online names of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s top appointees to the agency, including Executive Director Pat Foye, who sounded the alarm about the Fort Lee scheme. Mr. Wildstein’s redirect on PatFoye.com sends visitors to the website of the New York Yankees.

It’s one thing for public officials to subject one another to that kind of low-level, neener-neener harassment, but in New Jersey, reporters have been targeted, too. Mr. Wildstein snatched up and redirected ShawnBoburg.com after Mr. Boburg wrote a (not terribly unflattering) profile of the intensely private Mr. Wildstein last year and an article on Mr. Christie’s patronage hiring.

The long knives that New Jersey politicians have out for each other was the stuff of legend (and excellent TV drama) well before the bridge scandal. But the documents released thus far show how much the governor’s staff and appointees hated not only rival public officials but also the press.

Mr. Christie’s spokesman forwarded to Mr. Wildstein an email exchange with a Star-Ledger reporter who was inquiring about the scandal, calling the reporter an “[expletive]ing mutt.” After a request for comment came in from a member of the Star-Ledger editorial board, the governor’s spokesman erupted to Mr. Wildstein, “[expletive] him and the S-L.”

While the Christie appointees at the Port Authority asserted “no response” over and over to reporters’ requests for information, the governor publicly belittled journalists who had the temerity to ask him about the scandal. “I worked the cones, actually,” Mr. Christie scoffed in December, referring to the purported traffic study. “Unbeknownst to everybody, I was actually the guy out there. … You really are not serious with that question.”

Even in his ostensibly conciliatory news conference last week, Mr. Christie chided the media, telling a reporter who asked whether he had considered resigning, “That’s a crazy question, man.”

In fact, a Rasmussen poll out this week found that a majority of New Jersey residents would want the governor to resign if he had advance knowledge of the bridge plot.

If it weren’t for the dogged local press corps, Mr. Christie would still be ridiculing this story, attacking the legislators investigating it and persuading most of the national press to dismiss it.

The first reporting on the scandal was by the local traffic columnist in The Record, John Cichowski. The week of the traffic tie-ups, Mr. Cichowski was already calling bullpucky on the Port Authority line that some sort of “study” was to blame. He pointed to political retribution as a more likely explanation.

A steady stream of local reporting followed until, ultimately, Shawn Boburg’s scoop last Wednesday in The Record: The governor’s deputy chief of staff emailing Mr. Wildstein, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

The bridge story is still unfolding. But the pattern of how the scandal came to national attention is familiar.

When Connecticut Gov. John Rowland was still denying the allegations of corruption that would ultimately force him out of office, his wife read a poem (to the meter of “The Night Before Christmas”) mocking Hartford Courant reporter Jon Lender at a local Chamber of Commerce meeting:

When out on the yard there rose such a hub-bub,

I thought maybe Jon Lender had jumped in the hot tub.

Now surely that man needs to go soak his head,

but there on the lawn stood Santa instead.

Mr. Lender didn’t jump into anything, but he did stay on the story, and the aforementioned hot tub turned out to be one of the illegal gifts that would send the governor to prison.

When then-South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford was not hiking the Appalachian Trail but visiting his mistress in 2009, reporter Gina Smith from the State newspaper drove 200 miles to be in the Atlanta airport at 6 a.m. as Mr. Sanford got off his overseas flight. His ruse thus unraveled.

When Mayflower, Ark., learned the hard way last March that an aging ExxonMobil pipeline ran under it, the Arkansas Times’s dogged reporting included a crowd-funding effort to pay for its reporters to team with journalists experienced in covering pipelines to get to the bottom of what ExxonMobil did and whether other communities with buried pipelines should feel protected by existing regulations.

Most of the time, national news happens out loud: at news conferences, on the floor of Congress, in splashy indictments or court rulings. But sometimes, the most important news starts somewhere more interesting, and it has to be dug up.

Our democracy depends on local journalism, whether it’s a beat reporter slogging through yet another underattended local commission meeting, or a state political reporter with enough of an ear to the ground to know where the governor might be when he isn’t where he says he is, or a traffic columnist who’s nobody’s fool.

It’s annoying to pay for information — I know. But if you don’t subscribe to your local paper or pony up to get behind its online paywall, who’s going to pay reporters to cover the news where you live? A free press isn’t that kind of “free.”

An accountable democracy doesn’t work without real information, gathered from the ground up, about people in power, everywhere. Be inspired by the beleaguered but unintimidated reporters of Chris Christie’s New Jersey: Whatever your partisan affiliation, or lack thereof, subscribe to your local paper today. It’s an act of civic virtue.


Rachel Maddow hosts MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show” and writes a monthly column for The Washington Post.


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