New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has discovered a creative new way to make sure he’s always in the driver’s seat with his state’s news media. The Republican governor -- and likely 2016 presidential candidate -- can add “sports-car broker” to his list of media persuasion techniques after he successfully petitioned an auto dealership to loan a Corvette to the radio news host who interviews him each month on “Ask the Governor,” a public-affairs program on New Jersey 101.5. It is a situation that media experts say crosses major ethical lines.
The monthly call-in radio program, whose March episode airs Monday night at 7 p.m., is hosted by 101.5’s executive news director, Eric Scott, one of the few local media professionals who gets access to Christie on a regular basis. After Scott said on the Feb. 25 broadcast that he is not paid much money for interviewing the governor, Christie spent a portion of the broadcast urging the show’s main sponsor, the Lester Glenn Auto Group, to reward Scott with a free car. The governor even picked out the color -- dark blue.
“Maybe you can get something from the Lester Glenn Auto Group,” Christie told the host. Then he looked around the studio and asked, “How about a new car from the Lester Glenn Auto Group for Eric Scott? Right, can we do that? Are the Lester Glenn Auto people listening? Eric Scott is getting the shaft here, and what we need is a little love for Eric Scott. So maybe it could be coming from the Lester Glenn Auto Group.”
Moments later, a caller identified as John from Toms River suggested the car should be a Corvette, and Christie quickly agreed: “Nice -- a nice Corvette for Eric Scott.”
The comments could easily have been dismissed as playful banter, except the folks at Lester Glenn were paying attention. The dealership’s president, Adam Kraushaar, showed up at the radio station to personally deliver a dark blue Corvette for Scott, filming the stunt and posting a video of it on YouTube. Kraushaar also contributed $5,800 to the governor’s 2013 re-election bid, campaign records show.
Scott went on to boast about the “sweetest ride of my life,” and thanked the dealership on Twitter.
Reached by phone, John Perillo Sr., Lester Glenn’s vice president of operations, said the car is a temporary loaner and the dealership just wanted to prove it was listening when Christie mentioned it on the air. He said the dealership will pick it up from Scott at the end of this month. “We didn’t give it to him,” he said. “He’s just using it for the month, basically.”
Neither Christie’s office nor Scott responded to IBTimes’ request for comment.
Though the governor and Scott chuckled about the Corvette idea on air, media ethics experts say it is no laughing matter.
“I struggle to find any ethical justification for a call-in show host/news director to accept a gift of any kind, much less a Corvette, from someone at the behest of a talk-show guest, much less when that guest is the governor of the state,” said Robert Dreschel, the director the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Journalism Ethics. “Accepting such a gift inherently compromises or at least leaves the appearance of compromising the independence of not just the host/news director, but of the public affairs/news operation of the station itself. Although there may seem to be no quid pro quo here, I think there actually is. Surely a gift made under such circumstances leaves the host vulnerable to feeling beholden to the guest who has facilitated the gift, and to the gift-giver as well. Surely it would be reasonable for listeners to suspect as much.”
In exploring a possible 2016 presidential run, Christie has restricted New Jersey reporters’ access to him. Local media sources say the governor hasn’t held a press conference in New Jersey in six months, and last month, local media was barred from a press meeting held before his annual State of the State Address, as Politico reported. Marc Cooper, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California, said that makes the “Ask the Governor” controversy even more troubling.
“What you have is a governor who more or less refuses to hold himself accountable to the local press in any kind of satisfactory way, and a news director who has allowed himself to become the governor’s toadie,” he told IBTimes. “The unethical move of accepting the car even on loan is totally consistent with the unethical nature of the whole program.”
Patrick Murray, founding director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in New Jersey, said there’s been “big shift” in the governor’s accessibility since the Bridgegate scandal. “It’s certainly quite different than what we’ve been used to,” he said.
The lavish blue loaner at the governor's request renews questions about the program’s objectivity. Some people familiar with the show say it has aligned too closely with Christie, who they say is able to use the program to showcase his own agendas while shielding himself from wider media scrutiny. “Ask the Governor” was the first show Christie appeared on after the Fort Lee traffic-closure scandal in 2014 and drew complaints from people who said the governor seemed unwilling to meaningfully discuss the scandal with local media.
New Jersey 101.5 is owned by Townsquare Media. “Ask the Governor” has been an intermittent presence in New Jersey media for years. Christie’s predecessor, Jon Corzine, opted not to appear on it. But the program has proven to be an apt microphone for the current governor’s larger-than-life personality. It’s been honored with a “Best of the Best” award for public-affairs programming by the New Jersey Broadcasters Association.
Murray defended the show, too, saying it does a good job of presenting the governor with questions on the minds of New Jerseyans, if not the national media. But he said the show, by design, can’t push Christie too hard, lest he shut out 101.5 as he has done with other media. “There’s a little dance that they have to play,” Murray said. “They get the governor once a month for this show, and if you get him on the show, how hard are you going to press him?”
Far from hiding the deal, Lester Glenn posted a video about it on their site: