A Vast Wasteland

Last week’s arrests of dozens of political figures in New Jersey have raised anew the question that has baffled pundits, academics and civic do-gooders for generations. Why does New Jersey seem such a hospitable place for two-bit crooks posing as public servants?

First of all, let it be said that New Jersey is home to more than 400 towns, most of them with elected councils, boards of education, government administrators, civil servants and assorted other officials. The vast majority of them, it should be noted, are honest and competent. But many clearly are not.

You’d think that after so many embarrassments, New Jersey’s politicians would be more than a little reluctant to meet with shady characters in search of building permits and other government approvals. You’d hope that they would have the strength of character to walk away when those shady characters offer winks, nods and wads of cash.

They don’t, and it’s because they know that nobody is watching—nobody, except for the occasional F.B.I. agent. But the most important medium in today’s politics, television, has no interest in keeping New Jersey’s politicians on the straight and narrow. The network affiliates in Manhattan treat the west bank of the Hudson River as an afterthought, and the state’s politicians know it. And they, accordingly, are brazen in their contempt of the public because they know the public very likely will never hear about their behavior.

Without a major commercial television station devoted to local coverage (a PBS affiliate, NJN, does a commendable job of covering breaking stories), New Jersey government operates in the shadows. The culture of corruption thrives because there isn’t enough scrutiny, allowing the state’s most important political figures to remain anonymous. What’s more, the state’s lack of a major television station inadvertently adds to New Jersey’s dysfunction. Candidates are forced to raise huge war chests because they have to buy ads in the New York and Philadelphia markets. The pressures of fund-raising was behind more than a few of last week’s perp walks

Until Manhattan’s network affiliates recognize the importance of New Jersey, the state’s politicians will continue to operate as if nobody is watching. Because nobody is.

A Vast Wasteland