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George Santos’ victory tells a sad story about the state of local news

How did the representative-elect go from having nothing to millionaire status in two short years?
Image: U.S. Representative-elect George Santos.
U.S. Representative-elect George Santos, R-N.Y., speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition Annual Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Nov. 19, 2022. Wade Vandervort / AFP via Getty Images file

George Santos, a Republican from New York recently elected to Congress, is truly a self-made man in that he apparently made up a biography to run for office. It appears that almost nothing Santos said about himself during his 2022 campaign is true, and on Thursday, New York Attorney General Letitia James announced that her office is “looking into a number of issues” regarding Santos and his candidacy. But perhaps the most alarming thought is that such an apparent fraud was able to win a congressional seat in part because local newsrooms have either been shut down entirely or decimated by consolidation and layoffs.

George Santos is truly a self-made man in that he apparently made up a biography to run for Congress.

Santos was elected in November to represent New York’s 3rd Congressional District, which is located primarily on Long Island. Earlier this week, The New York Times exposed what is says are multiple lies Santos has told about his background. He didn’t go to school where he claimed to go to school, the Times reported. He didn’t work where he claimed he had worked. And he reportedly confessed to committing fraud in Brazil, but those charges remain unadjudicated because he left the country.

Santos’ attorney blasted The New York Times for its story about his client, but he didn’t dispute any of the details the newspaper reported. Santos himself tweeted Thursday that "I have my story to tell and it will be told next week."

When Santos unsuccessfully ran for the same seat in 2020, he reported having “no assets or earned income.” For his 2022 campaign, the newspaper notes, Santos reported assets worth between $2.6 and $11 million and reported loaning that campaign $700,000. How did Santos go from nothing to millionaire status in two short years? There is no clear answer but we need one given that with this newfound wealth Santos largely funded his 2022 campaign.

According to The New York Times, after he lost the 2020 election, Santos worked in various financial ventures including one sued by the Securities and Exchange Commission for being a Ponzi scheme. (Santos was not personally named in that lawsuit.) Per his congressional disclosure filing, he then created a company called The Devolder Organization that paid him a salary of $750,000. But according to the Times, that company had no assets and was thereafter dissolved for failing to file an annual corporate report. There must be an investigation to determine the source of the funds Santos loaned his campaign to ensure it was not an attempt to circumvent federal election laws, including laws that prohibit straw donors.

That's why James' announcement Thursday of an investigation is so important.

Since The New York Times story, other media outlets have raised other questions about Santos' biography. The Forward and CNN reported that Santos fabricated a claim that his grandparents fled the Holocaust. Santos ran as an openly gay man who says he has a husband who lives with him at his Long Island home, and he defended the Republican Party from charges of being homophobic. The Daily Beast could find no record of such a marriage but did find that he divorced a woman days before his 2020 run for Congress.

Since The New York Times story, other media outlets have raised other questions about Santos' biography.

It’s obvious why incoming House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries said Wednesday that “Santos appears to be starring in the sequel to ‘Catch Me If You Can,’” the 2002 film about a real-life serial conman starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Who is the real George Santos? Why did his Democratic opponent not call attention to his lies? And why did the media not catch his lies before the election?

Robert Zimmerman, who ran against Santos, says that while the allegations The New York Times published about Santos were “not a shock,” he didn’t know all those details. He said the Santos story was “drowned out in the governor’s race.” Zimmerman and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee may have assumed that, because a Democrat easily won the seat in 2020, there was little need for much opposition research on Santos.

But Santos slipping through an election with such little scrutiny is also a tale of the gutting of local newsrooms. The result is fewer reporters to investigate candidates in their own backyard. When President Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which significantly raised caps on the number of local newspapers and television stations a single corporation could own, the era of corporate media consolidation took hold. Local news outlets, be they urban or rural, lost resources and laid off reporters. And that was before Covid.

Since Covid, as the Poynter Institute for Media Studies has documented, local newsrooms and those that are subsidiaries of national outlets have either closed or implemented widespread layoffs. Small community papers from Georgia to Hawaii recently shut down. Gannett shuttered six weekly newsrooms in New York state alone.

Despite those trends, the North Shore Leader, a small local newspaper that has covered Long Island for more than 70 years, questioned in a September report how Santos went from no income or assets in 2020 to assets worth at least $2.6 million in 2022. The paper also said that Santos’ claim to local Republicans that he owned a $10 million mansion in the Hamptons was not backed up by real estate records.

A small newspaper that has covered Long Island more than 70 years questioned how Santos went from no income or assets in 2020 to assets worth at least $2.6 million in 2022.

But bigger newsrooms apparently didn’t notice. A search of online articles by Newsday, the largest paper in Long Island, brings up no mention of those allegations before the election. In fact, Newsday noted that Santos didn’t give an interview to their editorial board in 2022 so the newspaper republished its interview of him from 2020.

Local news outlets will likely contract even more, especially if we head into a recession. That means we can probably expect to see even more George Santoses running for office and winning.

While no news may be great news for lying politicians, it’s awful news for our democracy.