For Christie and MSNBC, a Messy Divorce Plays Out in Public View

Now, the improbable relationship between a governor with his eyes on the White House and a network determined to break into the top tier, up to now so beneficial to both, has curdled in a spectacularly public fashion.

Mr. Christie is confronting the worst crisis of his career, stemming from his aides’ role in shutting down approach lanes to the George Washington Bridge. The governor’s predicament is a ratings bonanza for MSNBC, whose left-leaning viewers are eating up every development in the sordid scandal.

Over the weekend, Mr. Christie, who has appeared on MSNBC many times since taking office, angrily denounced it as a “partisan network” that is “almost gleeful in their efforts attacking” him. Christie aides have called it a “feeding frenzy.”

“There is a difference between treating this matter seriously and seeking out the truth and irresponsibly using hearsay and conjecture without confirming the facts,” Colin Reed, a spokesman for Mr. Christie, said on Sunday. Feelings are frayed on both sides. Mika Brzezinski, a co-host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” who makes no secret of her affection for Mr. Christie, seemed taken aback by the governor’s harsh critique.

“I was a little surprised when he took a jab at us,” she said in an interview on Sunday.

“I don’t think it’s legitimate to say this is a partisan attack,” she added. “I think this is a very real story, with legs.”

MSNBC executives and hosts said the tale of power, revenge and traffic had riveted its audience, and they made no apologies for their near-saturation coverage.

“It is a great mystery story,” said Steve Kornacki, the host of an MSNBC show that has doggedly pursued new angles in the case, revealing the claims by Dawn Zimmer, the mayor of Hoboken, that the Christie administration linked Hurricane Sandy recovery money to her support for a development project.

Viewers, Mr. Kornacki said, have bombarded him with their own theories about who is to blame and what motivated the lane closings. “There is an appetite to know what really happened.”

That appetite has permeated the network. Over the nine-day period since the controversy erupted, MSNBC has dedicated nearly twice as much coverage to Mr. Christie as CNN and about three times as much as Fox News, according to Mediaite, a blog that tracks the industry. Detailed dissections of the case, and a rotating cast of indignant lawmakers from New Jersey, are now a staple of the network’s shows.

It appears to be playing well with viewers: For the week of Jan. 6, when the story began to gain national attention, Rachel Maddow, who had pursued the story for more than a month, scored a rare weekly win, beating the perennial ratings leader Fox News among the coveted 25 to 54 viewer category. It was the first time Ms. Maddow, the network’s star host, had won a ratings week in more than a year; the momentum continued last week, though final numbers are not available.

The network started featuring the story in early December, when Ms. Maddow introduced what she called a tale “just too crazy to believe.” Her colleagues joined her, and, once damning emails from Mr. Christie’s aides became public, they were ready to pounce: Lawrence O’Donnell created a hypothetical campaign commercial that could be used to skewer Mr. Christie over the matter. “You can do this at home” he declared, seemingly urging Christie foes to attack the governor. “It’s easy.”

Some Republicans see a campaign to knock Mr. Christie out of consideration for the 2016 presidential contest.

“The Democrats and the media are now throwing everything they can at him, because they know he is the only guy that can beat Hillary,” said Robert Grand, a major fund-raiser for the party, who is based in Indiana.

Whatever the network’s motivation, it is a jarring change for the New Jersey governor, long the subject of warm and laudatory coverage from the network’s hosts.

Ms. Brzezinski called him “my friend,” her co-anchor Joe Scarborough called him “my main man,” and Chris Matthews referred to him, with the familiarity of a family member, as “the guy we like around here.”

Network figures have hailed him as a gutsy bipartisan hero and a role model for an obstructionist party in need of overhaul. (“I have some advice for all those Republicans trying to re-brand their party,” Al Sharpton said on his show last year. “Watch Chris Christie.”)

Off camera, the governor developed close ties to anchors like Ms. Brzezinski, even showing up at her book signing not long ago. Immediately after Mr. Christie concluded his apologetic news conference about the controversy last week, he spent 15 minutes on the phone with Ms. Brzezinski as he prepared to face Fort Lee, the small community crippled by gridlock from the lane closures, she said.

On Sunday, Ms. Brzezinski still spoke fondly of Mr. Christie and his wife, Mary Pat, “whom I have the biggest admiration for,” she said.

Mr. Christie, who is known to be sensitive to slights, appears to be genuinely stung by the network’s coverage. But his outrage is also fueled by opportunism, Republican strategists say: The same brand of politics that appealed to the liberal anchors on MSNBC has antagonized conservatives around the country, whose support he will need to mount a White House run.

Those close to Mr. Christie say the attack on MSNBC reflects his office’s effort to assert control over a story that has quickly snowballed, attracting new allegations almost every day, catching the governor off guard. Allies of Mr. Christie sense that Democrats are now unleashing the kind of assault on him that they failed to deliver during his re-election campaign last year, which he won — in a blue state — by a landslide.

“The Democrats have been making up for lost time,” said Kevin Madden, a former campaign strategist for Mitt Romney.

The rough patch in Mr. Christie’s relationship with the news media is especially striking given how assiduously he courts press attention. When Mr. Kornacki was a reporter in New Jersey, he recalled, he received personal emails from Mr. Christie, who was United States attorney at the time. Reporters have marveled at the access the governor has given them, including Jake Tapper of CNN, who declared that he had not experienced anything similar since John McCain’s famously freewheeling presidential campaign in 2000.

But on MSNBC this weekend, Mr. Kornacki’s invitations to Mr. Christie to appear were snubbed.

“If he’d like to come on next week, say the word,” Mr. Kornacki said, before acknowledging the long odds.

“There’s always room for hope in this world,” he said.

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