This article was co-written by Kent Syler.
There’s a well-worn newsroom adage that says, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
These days the adage is closer to, “If a candidate for Congress lies about his education, business experience, his personal life and even the death of employees in a nightclub shooting, wait for The New York Times to check it out.”
The Times’ revelations that incoming Republican Congressman George Santos of Long Island fabricated much of his public persona on his path to election is an enormous embarrassment to Newsday, long the dominant local newsroom in the sprawling suburban expanse, and other regional news media that didn’t check on Santos’ claims before the election.
The one exception was the North Shore Leader, a hyperlocal weekly newspaper that in September doubted Santos’ claims about his net worth. The paper with conservative roots subsequently wrote that it had wanted to endorse a Republican but could not support Santos because “he’s most likely just a fabulist – a fake.”
These weren’t garden-variety claims from Santos. He claimed to have worked at Goldman Sachs and Citigroup and that he was a graduate of Baruch College, all of which he now acknowledges to be untrue. But there are also questions about how his net worth suddenly skyrocketed, his alleged role in leading a charity and his claim that four of his employees died in the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla. New questions about his past statements emerge almost daily.
Consider these points about how Santos got away with it
The fact that none of his lies emerged publicly before he was elected has some blaming the news media, and with some justification. But the press is too easy a target. It’s like blaming the police for crime.
Santos wasn’t elected on a foundation of lies because of a journalistic lapse; the fault lies with a political process that is long on cynicism and short on integrity.
There’s plenty of blame to go around:
- Neither the Republican Party, which allowed Santos to run under its banner, nor the Democratic Party bothered to do the basic vetting of a political candidate. This is unacceptable in a race of this importance. It was rated a tossup for months. Control of the House could have rested on its outcome. It drew enough attention from political donors to allow both campaigns to raise millions of dollars.
- The campaign of Democrat Robert Zimmerman missed a valuable opportunity to hold Santos responsible for his lies. While being battered by ads attacking him as weak on crime, all Zimmerman did was talk about his “Democratic values.” Had the Democratic Party and Zimmerman’s campaign done their homework, they could have easily disqualified Santos. They had more than enough campaign cash to push the message.
- The Republican Party should be held accountable for not doing research on Santos, a two-time Republican nominee. GOP leaders’ negligence has led to the election of a candidate who is embarrassing the party and putting their members on the defensive. Opposition research has been a part of political campaigns for decades. It is not unusual to “do a book” on your opponent and also do one on your candidate. You want to know what is out there that could be used by your opponent or the news media.
- Today’s hyperpolarized political culture is fueled by a win-at-all-costs mentality in which the ends justify the means. Santos would have needed to be a political Forrest Gump for all his incredible stories to be true, but that didn’t deter his supporters or provoke even basic questions from them.
- Many complain about the perceived failings of the news media, but how many of us actually support American journalism financially? Newsrooms have been devastated by layoffs because we’re not willing to pay for news. Even the mighty Times, which has defied many trends and grown its digital audience and subscription base, has trimmed its metro New York desk over the past decade. We’re defunding the watchdogs. There’s also a disquieting percentage of Americans who decry or tune out news coverage that’s not favorable to their party of choice. Hard truths are not “fake news.”
Winning at all costs comes with a price
The North Shore Leader, the only news organization to call Santos out before his election, is taking a victory lap with a story headlined, “The Leader Told You So.”
And so it did.
The Leader also showed us how to set aside political preferences for the good of the nation, an increasingly uncommon act in a country too often paralyzed by partisanship.
Winning at all costs is costing America dearly.
Ken Paulson and Kent Syler are professors at Middle Tennessee State University, where they respectively serve as Free Speech Center director and special projects coordinator for the Albert Gore Research Center.
The Free Speech Center newsletter offers a digest of First Amendment and news media-related news every other week. Subscribe for free here: https://bit.ly/3kG9uiJ