Corzine’s Buoy? A Newspaper Buyout

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If New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine wins a second term Tuesday, it will come in spite of a struggling economy and rising unemployment.

And, also, because of it.

Because when The (Newark) Star-Ledger, the state’s largest newspaper, could no longer afford to keep one of its best reporters on his beat, it turned out the Corzine campaign could. And in doing so, it gained a secret weapon in what looked like a hopeless race.

It was a year ago. Corzine was in a bad fix. Barack Obama had just won the state by 15 points, yet the Democratic governor was neck and neck with his white knight Republican opponent, former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie. Corzine had been unpopular with New Jersey voters for so long that he knew no gimmick or five-point plan could resuscitate his image — especially not in the middle of a recession. His last refuge was to drag his opponent down to his level and hope the Democrats’ superior turnout operation would give him the edge.

About the same time, The Star-Ledger was completing an enormous round of buyouts. The troubled Newark paper nearly halved its 330-person newsroom; among those leaving was its star investigative reporter, Jeff Whelan. He wouldn’t be out of a job for long: Within three months, Corzine named Whelan his director of campaign research — in other words, leading opposition research on Christie.

No big deal, right? Journalists go into politics all the time. True, but while Whelan had a lot of beats in New Jersey politics (including Corzine’s Statehouse), it’s his final assignment that makes him exceptional. From 2007 until his buyout in late 2008, Whelan was The Star-Ledger’s reporter covering the U.S. attorney’s office in Newark — Chris Christie’s office. Whelan was in close proximity to everyone who knew Christie professionally, all the office gossip, all the people who had axes to grind — everyone.

Even though federal prosecutors are forbidden from partisan activities, Christie’s political ambitions were well-known — especially in 2008, when Whelan covered him. Is there really any question whether another opposition researcher for Corzine could have gotten the same kind of access and insight?

That’s not to say that Whelan is the only one who could have done this job, but it’s hard to imagine someone doing it more effectively. Whelan knew exactly what rocks to look under. In some cases, he literally wrote the story.

And while it can be argued that Whelan would have investigated all of Christie’s failings had he remained at The Star-Ledger, the timing and release of his findings would not have been tied to a campaign’s schedule. Corzine’s media team carefully plotted its attacks on Christie, incrementally driving his negatives up and his lead down. The still unpopular Corzine may very well win, and The Star-Ledger’s financial trouble inadvertently played a crucial role.

Is Whelan’s shift the start of a trend for investigative reporters? Instantly going from your subject’s skeptical observer to an adversarial researcher can be a lucrative move in an uncertain industry. Because if your newspaper can no longer afford to keep you on your beat, maybe there’s a candidate who can.

John R. Bohrer, a historian, is a former New Jersey political operative.

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