By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

There’s nothing new about the media’s failure to expose George Santos

Peter Blute back in the day. Photo via Wikipedia.

I doubt anyone is reading today, but here I am. I want to share an anecdote that I think sheds some further light on the media’s failure to expose serial liar George Santos before he was elected to Congress. My point is not to make excuses for the press — quite the opposite.

Way back in 1996, a somewhat obscure aide to Democratic congressman Joe Moakley named Jim McGovern stunned political observers by beating Republican congressman Peter Blute in the Central Massachusetts district that Blute had represented for two terms. Blute was scandal-free (at that time, anyway) and was not thought to be in any trouble. Polling in congressional districts, then as now, tends to range from poor to non-existent. Because of those factors, the race got virtually no coverage.

After McGovern won, I learned that political reporters were upset — not with themselves, but with Blute’s political consultant, Charley Manning, for not warning them that Blute might be in trouble. Yes, you read that correctly. Members of the press — some of them, anyway — thought it was Manning’s job to let them know that Blute wasn’t a shoo-in and that maybe they ought to pay some attention before Election Day.

Now, this isn’t entirely outrageous. Even 26 years ago, the media had limited resources, and there was a huge battle that year between Democratic Sen. John Kerry, who faced a strong challenge for re-election from Republican Gov. Bill Weld. It was a presidential year. And reporters (including me) were also busy covering the rematch between North Shore congressman Peter Torkildsen and attorney John Tierney; Torkildsen, a Republican, had nearly lost to Democrat Tierney two years earlier. (Kerry and Tierney both won in 1996, leaving Massachusetts with an all-Democratic congressional delegation, which has been unbroken to this day except for the brief Scott Brown interregnum.) Still, the idea of blaming Blute’s political consultant for their own inattention seemed then and now as fairly ridiculous.

So it strikes me that a large part of what went wrong in that Long Island House district was that the media made assumptions — always a bad idea, but nevertheless not at all unusual. Santos, a Republican, had lost in 2020 by a dozen points (albeit to an incumbent in a good year for Democrats). He seemed like a nonentity. The Democratic nominee in 2022, Robert Zimmerman, reportedly hadn’t turned up much beyond “Santos is a MAGA Trumper blah blah blah.” The New York media were obsessed with the possibility of a Red Wave and whether Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul might be able to hang on. Inexcusably, everyone ignored pre-election reporting by the weekly North Shore Leader, which was able to publish some key details about Santos’ lies. And there matters stood until Dec. 19, when The New York Times published the first in a series of stories exposing Santos as an utter fraud.

So unless someone proves that Santos isn’t a U.S. citizen (a possibility), he’ll be sworn in on Jan. 3, casting a crucial vote to make Kevin McCarthy speaker. All because the media was depending on others to do their job for them.


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  1. Joan Vennochi

    I am reading on New Year’s Eve! I agree. Political reporters/columnists over-rely on consultants to tell them what’s going on with their candidate and their candidate’s opponent. And that has only gotten worse over time.

    • My feeling as well. There’s always too much going on for the news media to catch everything. But Zimmerman had only one job—to win his seat. Between his campaign team, the DCCC, and the state party, was there nobody doing opposition research?

  2. I’m here! This Santos clown show has been entertaining me for an entire week. As far as I’m concerned, this is the Zimmerman and the Democrats’ fault. As you’ve pointed out, “the media” (at least one) *did* raise flags about Santos but no one paid attention. It was on Zimmerman to make noise about it.

    Have a happy New Year, Dan and thanks for all the blogging!

    • Cécile B Stelzer-Johnson

      It should not and cannot be the opposition’s job to sort out candidates for us, Steve: “Oppo” work is quack mired in the desire to arrive at a certain goal. That means hatchet jobs and puff pieces. Neither are helpful to attaining the truth: They serve specific constituencies, but not the Truth, and not the American People.

  3. Stephen R Nelson

    Dan, I am reading and washing the dishes!

  4. Don Dustin

    The media never pursue Democrats that lie and have shady pasts either. Why is that?

  5. Cécile B Stelzer-Johnson

    You are right on the money: It is not AND SHOULD NEVER BE the job of the 4th Estate to tell voters who is up, who is down and if there are problems with a candidate: It is and should be the job of the Party they vow to represent, for a few reasons:
    1/ if a candidate is going to get the support of a Party machine to get elected [financial and otherwise], the Party has the upper hand in demanding quality. That means no scandals and showing his/ her taxes. After Watergate, it was decided that Presidential candidates should show their taxes. It was a good idea, as we do not want a President to be bought by a Foreign power. But it didn’t go far enough.
    In My Humble Estimation, the Congress being composed of 535 members, all of them having enough ambition to become dishonest if it serves their goal of being elected. But it is not *after* a person is elected that scandals should surface. It should be handled by the Party, which has a vested interest in choosing tis candidates properly. A George Santos would never have been elected. And before I hear a scream from those who are afraid that all taxes would be public, let me remind you that before 1924, that was actually the case.
    Until the rich revolted:
    My proposal would only be fore presumptive candidates. If they choose to receive Public acclamation and a position in Congress, they should allow the scrutiny. If not, they do not become candidates to start with.
    We would all be amazed by the “candidate quality” we get then, Mr. McConnell.

  6. Cécile B Stelzer-Johnson

    2/ It should not be the Press, the 4th Estate, that should be in charge of choosing candidates for us. In our times, when polarization has been maximized, the regular press has been vilified for the profit of “newstertainment”, a dangerous mix of truths and lies. When the Fairness Doctrine was in effect, a proper news organization had a duty to present both points of view, and they did, and there wasn’t much polarization. The removal of the fairness doctrine meant that all sorts of people could attempt to influence Politics by doing hatchet jobs on prominent politicians or deliberately promote point of view without any regard for the Truth.
    3/ Unfortunately, humans as we are, we tend to listen to those who are already “singing our song”. That is an enormous multiplier of discord, and reinstalling the Fairness Doctrine would be a good path, if we took it. But too many entities profit from scandalous allegations, followed by a crass request for cold cash. [As if they were going to do our biding for the $10.00 we can spare. Come on!] Citizens United really introduced an enormity in our politics
    4/ Most newspapers now have “a bend” and that is unfortunate: They too are seeking to entertain us, just to stay relevant and sell copies and in so doing, they scratch an itch. TV programming is unfortunately going down the same path. They encourage and give voice to our worst angels. Look at the ferocity of this voting for the Speaker of the House. That is so wrong.
    Stay in contact with your representatives and demand integrity first!
    It is not such a bad goal.

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