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.