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NJ governors convene to discuss modern media

<p>Left to right: former Govs. James J. Florio, Christine Todd Whitman and Brendan Thomas Byrne gather at the Douglass Campus Center to celebrate the 350th anniversary of New Jersey.</p>

Left to right: former Govs. James J. Florio, Christine Todd Whitman and Brendan Thomas Byrne gather at the Douglass Campus Center to celebrate the 350th anniversary of New Jersey.

More than a decade’s worth of New Jersey history convened in the Douglass Campus Center on Saturday morning for a conference co-hosted by the Eagleton Institute of Politics and the New Jersey Historical Commission.

The conference, which focused on the evolving role of the governor and the media in the state, featured a panel discussion with three former governors of New Jersey and Steve Kornacki, the host of “Up” on MSNBC, who acted as moderator.

The event commemorated “New Jersey 350,” where the state will celebrate its 350th anniversary in 2014, said Sara Cureton, director of the New Jersey Historical Commission.

“What we’re really marking is the point when New Jersey became New Jersey,” she said.

Cureton said the roots of the state date back to 1664, when the Duke of York issued a land grant to John Berkeley and George Carteret that became the state of New Jersey.

“New Jersey 350” is honoring the anniversary by spreading the themes of innovation, diversity and liberty, she said, as well as reflecting upon the enormous amount of power vested in New Jersey’s governor.

Previous governors James Florio, Christine Whitman and Brendan Byrne appraised former and current governor administrations, emphasizing the role of the media during these administrations.

Florio, who held office from 1990 to 1994, said his administration focused heavily on cleaning up the environment and bringing about more funding for education.

The media during his time in office differed from the media today, he said. More reporters specialized in specific areas, whereas reporters today often write stories on topics they know little about, he said.

“It has become much more superficial,” Florio said. “The economics of the media don’t dictate that they have a lot of revest, so a lot of newspapers are starting to fail. Newspapers don’t have the same coverage.”

Whitman, who held office from 1994 to 2001, agreed that the quality of the media has degraded since she was a main issue of contention in the press.

The stories have less depth and are tailored more for a “Twitter-type” of audience, she said. Less research goes into the news, and the purpose of the media has shifted into providing an overgeneralized and oversimplified view of current-day issues.

“A free press is critical to our society, but there are times when you’re really bumping heads with them and trying to get through to the people without the filter of whatever bias the media might bring to them,” she said.

Over a span of seven years, Whitman’s administration revolved around tax cuts, tax reform, pension bonds and the million-dollar bond for open space preservation, which preserved a million acres of open space, farmland and parks, she said.

Whitman in particular held a unique position in her time as governor because she was the first, and still the only, female governor in New Jersey history.

“Initially, it was [the media] getting over the fact that I was a woman. I actually [knew] something about economics, economic policy and tax policies. … At the beginning, they said that my husband must be behind all of that. They got over it,” she said.

To this day, Whitman said she could not attribute the remarks she received during her administration to her being governor or to her being a woman.

“There were things covered and questions raised that I think [the media] would not have raised with a man,” she said. “There were mutterings about the ‘Estrogen Palace’ because of the women that I appointed.”

Kornacki, a senior political writer for, also described his view of how the media has changed over the past couple of decades.

More and more journalists today lack institutional memory, he said, or the context that allows an individual to place a specific event into a larger panorama.

Institutional memory gives reporters instant reflexive context on any development, he said.

Kornacki said although many journalists lack institutional memory, they make up for it with the eagerness, drive and enthusiasm to dig for information. Still, the presence of institutional as well as historical memory allows for a more comprehensive perspective on a single given issue, he said.

“The best stories in politics aren’t the headlines. They aren’t the leads of the stories — they’re the backstories. It’s what happened to get to the story itself,” he said.

Kornacki said New Jersey politics are intriguing, particularly in the current political climate.

“I love international politics, but I continue to find New Jersey politics endlessly fascinating,” he said. “The challenge right now is trying to communicate that to a national audience that doesn’t automatically think it’s the most interesting thing in the world.”

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