When a Governor Won't Talk
Staff Writer Josh Goodman wrote a profile of Chris Christie for the August issue. But, Christie wouldn't talk to him for the story. Here's how Josh handled it.
A confession: Whenever I call a governor, I wonder why on Earth he or she would want to talk to me. Governing is (in my opinion) a well-respected publication that's done a lot of good reporting over the years. But, what we write doesn't usually filter into the national consciousness in the way that a piece in the New York Times might. If you're the governor of Kentucky and you're concerned about reelection, truth be told, it makes a lot more sense to talk to the Paducah Sun than to talk to Governing.
For that reason, I'm often pleasantly surprised at how willing governors are to talk to us. Maybe they just like Governing or maybe they think we're more powerful than we actually are. Who knows, maybe we are more powerful than I realize. I once called the Tennessee governor's office for a 300-word piece about ethanol fueling stations, hoping just to get a quote from the governor's spokesperson. She said that now wasn't a good time, but "We'll call back later." I wondered whether she always spoke in the royal we. Phil Bredesen, of course, called me back.
In that context, I was irritated that when I was reporting a story about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, I couldn't get access to Christie himself. I tried being nice ("Name any time in the next four weeks and I'll be in Trenton"). I tried being mean ("I'm going to write that your budget takes a fiscally irresponsible approach to the public employee pension system. Don't you want to respond?") Nothing worked. Maybe the much-hyped Christie was in so much demand that he was simply overwhelmed by media requests, although his office also wouldn't provide me with access to the lieutenant governor or his chief of staff. Maybe he and his press staff just aren't familiar with Governing, since a U.S. Attorney wouldn't have any reason to read the publication. Maybe his staff figured out that they could ignore my call and nothing bad would happen.
Though no reporter likes to do it, it's not hard to write a profile of someone without talking to them. I synthesized the thoughts of the governor's allies, foes and unaligned observers. I excerpted heavily from Christie's speeches to give readers a sense of both the style and substance of the man.
It was harder to know what, if anything, I should write in the article about Christie's refusal to comment. To any reader who was paying close attention, it would be clear that I hadn't actually talked to the governor. Newspapers say that people declined to comment all the time, but it felt a little bit weirder in a magazine piece. Should I say that Christie declined to comment? What about the lieutenant governor and chief of staff? If so, how should I phrase it?
I tend to think that my story actually turned out to be a pretty flattering portrayal of Christie. But, there definitely are parts that aren't flattering. Early drafts, before he reached a deal with the legislature on a property tax cap, were somewhat less flattering. In deciding how or whether to say "Christie declined to comment," that weighed on my mind.
On one hand, I didn't want readers to think I was saying bad things about Christie without giving his administration an opportunity to respond. On the other hand, I didn't want to sound petty or vindictive -- like I had a grudge against him or I wrote negative things about him because he wouldn't talk to me.
In the end, I didn't mention the lieutenant governor or chief of staff. That seemed like piling on. I call enough people for a major feature story that invariably some of them don't get back to me. I don't generally call them out in print. Why do it here? Plus, I had a good chat with the state treasurer, a key Christie appointee, so it's not as though the governor's staff was wholly uncooperative. I also decided not to use a phrase like, "declined repeated requests for comment" -- something you'll often see in newspapers.
But, I did think that readers deserved to know that the reason I didn't interview Christie was because he didn't want to talk. In the end, that message was conveyed in a single clause tucked (somewhat randomly) in one sentence:
But it also quickly became clear that Christie, who declined to be interviewed for this story, couldn't always win on his own terms.