The (Newark, New Jersey) Star-Ledger is committed to keeping Gov. Chris Christie honest — even if it takes a private plane.
On Sunday afternoon, Christie told reporters he hadn't gotten any sun that day. Unfortunately for him, the Newark Star-Ledger had proof to the contrary.
Earlier that day, photographer Andy Mills flew by Christie and his family — twice — while taking photos from the open door of a small plane. Christie and his wife were catching some rays on an otherwise deserted shoreline behind a state-provided beach house.
Island Beach State Park, where Christie and company lounged, is closed this week because of a government shutdown prompted by legislative gridlock in nearby Trenton. Christie ordered the shutdown on Friday after New Jersey lawmakers failed to pass a budget by midnight on Friday.
"The beach house is one of the great perks of being governor," said Kevin Whitmer, the editor of the Star-Ledger. "When Christie was forced to shut down the state Friday night, he told people he would be spending the weekend there because that’s where his family would be."
The newspaper seized the opportunity. In years past, it had buzzed the Jersey shoreline from above to snap photos of Independence Day crowds soaking up sun. Mills suggested taking the plane up Sunday, Whitmer said, and his timing was "absolutely perfect."
In a writeup for the newspaper Monday morning, Mills recalled the moment he discovered Christie sunbathing:
There Christie was, with family and friends, on a long and empty stretch of beach near the governor's shore residence, nobody else within a country mile. They were enjoying the beautiful summer day on a beach closed to the public by Christie because of a budget standoff.
In one photo, Christie looks me dead in the eye. He has to know what's happening. Why else would a plane make two passes over his private beach party when there's no one else around?
Shortly after Mills got photos of the governor, Christie departed for Trenton.
"The pilot made two passes over the area and Andy has a lot of experience with aerial photography and he knows the Jersey Coast as well as anyone," Whitmer said.
— Matthew Stanmyre (@MattStanmyre) July 3, 2017
When he got to the Sunday afternoon news conference in Trenton, a reporter asked Christie whether he'd "got any sun." The governor said he hadn't. Then, the Star-Ledger informed his staff they had the goods, prompting a hair-splitting response from his spokesperson.
"Yes, the governor was on the beach briefly today talking to his wife and family before heading into the office," Brian Murray, the governor's spokesman, told the Star-Ledger. "He did not get any sun. He had a baseball hat on."
The poor optics of Christie's seaside retreat haven't been lost on Star-Ledger readers. It's prompted an outcry on social media, along with a helping of attaboys from journalists who admired the aerial exposé:
— Julia Reinstein (@juliareinstein) July 3, 2017
This is a modern classic. One of greatest moments in a political career now defined forever by Bridgegate and this https://t.co/YCHg48bxae
— Eric Lipton (@EricLiptonNYT) July 3, 2017
This photo will be an icon of our timehttps://t.co/h8Z7UX0N9n
— Sam Dolnick (@samdolnick) July 3, 2017
Oh, this is just amazing. https://t.co/V8Hu9UWIjF
— Ed O'Keefe (@edatpost) July 3, 2017
— Edmund Lee (@edmundlee) July 3, 2017
Whitmer wouldn't say how much it cost to get the aerial photographs. But with reporters scrambling to cover the shutdown, it was well worth it, he said. On Saturday, before they published the photos, the paper's website set an all-time pageview record. And before the photos were published Sunday, the paper was already headed for a top-five pageview day.
"We won’t talk about the cost, but we have had people working around the clock since Friday and this was an easy decision — even if we had missed the governor," he said.