The New York Times today published a remarkable exposé (free link) of a Republican congressman-elect from Long Island named George Santos. It seems that almost nothing he’s ever claimed about himself is true. For all I know, he may not even exist.
The details, though, are less important than the timing. If the article, by Grace Ashford and Michael Gold, had been published before the November election, it seems likely that Santos would have lost to his Democratic rival, Robert Zimmerman. Instead, the people of his district are almost surely stuck with him for the next two years. As I posted on Mastodon: “Not to play down the work involved, but it sure would have been nice for the NYT to publish this before the election — especially since this is the second time he’s run.”
Others soon piled on, including a few members of the conspiratorial left who asserted without evidence that the Times wanted Santos to win, so they waited until after the election. That, of course, makes zero sense.
What most likely happened is something I’ve seen during my own career: the media didn’t bother to vet Santos before the election because they believed he had no chance of winning, even though he’d run before. Now, before you get too outraged, let’s keep in mind that journalistic resources are limited, and not everything and everyone is going to receive the scrutiny that they perhaps they deserve. The political press is also dependent on opposition research as well. If Zimmerman didn’t think Santos warranted investigating then it’s difficult for the media to know that, of all the people running for office, Santos deserved a closer look. Josh Marshall put it this way:
So why didn’t Santos get more scrutiny? Basically because he was running in a fairly Democratic district and people didn’t think he had much of a shot. He ran against Rep. Tom Suozzi in 2020 and lost 56% to 44%. But Suozzi gave up his seat in what turned out to be a failed run for governor. This year Santos won 54% to 46% in what was now an open seat. These are generally Democratic districts. But they’re very different from districts in most of New York City where Republicans today have virtually no chance of winning. In New York state’s red wave, Santos won and by a significant margin.
It’s not pretty and, yes, it’s easy to say that the Times and other news outlets should have paid more attention to Santos and his apparently fake résumé before Election Day. But as the great poet Donald Rumsfeld once explained, there are known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. The possibility that Santos might win, and that his record wouldn’t hold up to the most cursory examination, was an unknown unknown. The press can’t expose this sort of thing if it doesn’t know where to look.
This episode also says something about the local news crisis. Was there no community journalism outlet for whom this race would have been a top priority? Apparently not.