WSJ reporter Ted Mann on covering Bridgegate
Ted Mann is the transportation reporter for the Greater New York section of The Wall Street Journal and the paper's first reporter to realize that there was more to the closure of a few approach lanes to the George Washington Bridge than met the eye. Capital's Tom McGeveran talked to him about what it's like to report on a regional transportation dispute that becomes a national headline.
CAPITAL: So you're reporting on a traffic study on the George Washington Bridge—at what point do you realize that this is something much bigger?
TED MANN: The first story came from a tip from a good source of mine who I've worked with in the past, and that was on the weekend after the week when this all went down. There had been two [posts] in the Road Warrior column in the Bergen Record—why won't they explain this study? Why won't they explain why the lanes were closed? It went away and nobody explained why—those two columns that appeared, the guy sent me a link to one of them and said, "I need to talk to you about this."
The source of mine and I met up, he basically showed me some things that we couldn't use or print that gave us the idea that there was something bigger happening at the Port Authority and that it was far beyond an insensitive agency doing something that caused traffic jams.
So our first story was basically about how it was a mystery—I think the word "mystery" was in the headline—and the reason that my editors were willing to go with it is that it was very clear that the statement [the Port Authority] gave to the Bergen Record columnist and the statement they gave to me wasn't right.
CAPITAL: And from there ...
MANN: Yeah, people were—we didn't know that it would get to be as big as it did, but we knew that it potentially could be this big. Bureaucrats [like Port Authority executive director Pat Foye] don't generally write emails like [Foye's Sept. 13 memo] calling this an abuse of power, calling it abusive and almost calling it illegal. You don't write things like this, fiery things, as a matter of course. It was not the sort of email you expect to be sent internally at a government agency. It took some time to convince people to show us some documents or speak on background. But from documents that have since become public it's clear that …. the tension between New York and New Jersey was boiling, so they were all just ready to fight as soon as we got something in the paper.
CAPITAL: It seems to me that rifts inside government agencies and between government agencies, they're a big part of why stories like this ever get public attention at all.
MANN: Oh definitely, I think that if this—maybe this is a sloppy way to think about it, but if you use the counterfactual, if a New Jersey agency owned this bridge in its entirety, it would have been much easier to keep secret, if you hadn't had the Port Authority's internal tensions between New York and New Jersey. Pat Foye or Scott Rechler, or anyone high from the New York side in the agency, even getting a call from Albany saying "New Jersey really wants this" wouldn't be enough to go along if it was making you look really bad. The tensions that are built in in that agency of the two states, it's like tectonic plates, and information leaks out when there's conflict.
CAPITAL: Also on a beat like transportation, you're dealing with a lot of professionals, people with a specialty that takes years and years to learn who don't come and go with every new administration. I mean, you probably talk to people who care very deeply about traffic studies.
MANN: From the beginning one of my original sources—I don't want to define him too closely—but some of the sources who found out this was going on were not engineers, it was a political thing, but all along as we started to ask these questions there was gonna be a very prolonged difficult period for the guys whose jobs it was to keep this bridge going, that had to follow an order and that knew that it was going to cause problems …. The nice thing is that the documents have shown that … the back and forth among guys in the traffic and engineering department and they are all going back and forth going "Why are we doing this? Why is the 15th floor involved"—that's the executive level. They knew it was gonna be chaos. [Bridge manager] Bob Durando, when he was emailing during those days, he was putting the word "test" in scare quotes almost every time. They know this is something that is not a legitimate study.
The jarring moment I think for a lot of people was not even Pat Foye saying under oath that he didn't believe the explanation. It was Bob Durando being asked if he was afraid for his job, and he paused, and swallowed, and then was silent for about 16 seconds, before he said, “I was concerned what [Christie appointee David Wildstein]’s reaction would be if I didn’t follow his directive.” These are guys who have spent 30 years maybe as professionals in this organization, the guys whose job is to keep things running and keep them safe, afraid for their jobs; this was something they knew was going to be a disaster and being done for no legitimate reason.
CAPITAL: It seems like the next shoe to drop will be this evidence from Hoboken mayor Dawn Zimmer, but this isn't a transportation story—this isn't something you'll be working on is it?
MANN: I've been working all along with Heather Haddon, who is our New Jersey reporter, and we wrote a story together about the process of seeking endorsements and for that story we had Dawn Zimmer …. She didn't go as far with us as she eventually did with [MSNBC host Steve Kornacki]. I think every news outlet will be finding as many examples of that sort of thing.
And I'm willing to place a bet we will have some media criticism in the next week or two in terms of who goes too far in treating what is acceptable hardball politics—what Zimmer is describing is something thats' a fairly serious shakedown charge, but it's also pretty common in a hard-knuckle political environment to say if you don't go along with something you're not exactly gonna be the first phone calls we answer, so we're as reporters going to have to be careful to keep all that in perspective as we're reporting out a lot about Christie's political style.
But in my reporting the central issue, and the central timeline of what happened at the bridge, still has a lot of unanswered questions about it. And the governor has changed his assessment of what he first learned and when. In December he said he first learned about it when we published Pat Foye's email in October. … But we know that on the Wednesday of that week [in September] he was face to face with David Wildstein and Bill Baroni at the 9/11 memorial… He's not at any point yet been explicit about what exactly he knew and when. If all these members of his staff have been keeping it from him, why is that? And not all of them have been fired.
CAPITAL: Well there's a whole thing going on already about whether this is a big story. Pew had numbers showing that 20 percent of Americans were following the story closely, and 16 percent of people said they thought less of Christie after this story, and some people are using these numbers to say the story is being covered too aggressively and others are using the same number to say it isn't. Does this seem like a big number or a small one to you?
MANN: I think in terms of the changing opinion—that actually does seem rather large to me. But not determinative of his fate or anything. But for what is essentially a regional traffic dispute that is interesting. The larger issue about those numbers, and I get them a lot in the emails I get from people bout how I should stop writing about this—it has to be irrelevant. This is still a big deal to the people it happened to and there is still a lot that hasn't been explained about why this happened to them. So that has to be irrelevant—for local reporters, you have to figure out why the hell they did it.
This interview appeared in condensed form in the February issue of Capital magazine.