The Friday reading list

On this Friday morning, I’ve got three stories that I think are worth sharing with you. This is not the debut of a regular feature, but from time to time I run across good journalism that I want to put out there without much in the way of commentary. That’s what we used to use Twitter for, right?

The Washington Post isn’t going to be fixed anytime soon. Those of us who follow the trials and tribulations of The Washington Post have assumed that longtime publisher Fred Ryan had at least one foot on the proverbial banana peel. But according to Clare Malone, writing in The New Yorker, Ryan has emerged as more powerful than ever since the retirement of Marty Baron as executive editor. He seems to have no fresh ideas for reversing the Post’s declining fortunes, but Bezos apparently likes him. It doesn’t sound like Baron’s successor, Sally Buzbee, shares Bezos’ affection for Ryan, but she lacks the clout that the legendary Baron had.

Questions about the police killing of Tyre Nichols. MLK50: Justice Through Journalism is among the projects that Ellen Clegg and I are writing about in “What Works in Community News,” our book-in-progress. The website, based in Memphis, focuses on social justice issues. In a list of questions that need to be answered about Nichols’ death, this one stands out: “Since 2015, Memphis police have killed at least 15 people. How many people would need to die at the police’s hands before city leaders concede that the latest incident isn’t an indictment of a few bad apples, but reflects an institution that requires immediate overhaul?”

The Durham investigation was as corrupt it appeared. New York Times reporters Charlie Savage, Adam Goldman and Katie Benner go deep (free link) into Bill Barr and John Durham’s years-long effort to discredit the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia and to somehow drag Hillary Clinton into it. The best quote is from Robert Luskin, a lawyer who represented two witnesses Durham interviewed: ““When did these guys drink the Kool-Aid, and who served it to them?”

Democrats may regret not seeking a consensus candidate for House speaker

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Photo (cc) 2020 by Gage Skidmore.

There were always two schools of thought as to what the Democrats ought to do about the civil war among the Republicans over who should be House speaker. One was to do exactly what they did: stay united and let the Republicans destroy themselves. Two years of hell awaits on the debt ceiling, aid to Ukraine and, of course, an idiotic investigation into Hunter Biden’s laptop.

One argument was that this was the best move politically — that after two years of chaos, the voters would gratefully turn back to the Democrats in 2024. And that may be the case.

The other school was that the Democrats should find a Republican they could work with, either inside or outside the House (the Constitution allows for outside candidates), stay united, and try to peel off a few reasonable Republicans to support a consensus candidate. My thought was that Liz Cheney might be a good choice. I heard former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s name come up as well.

I understand this was always unlikely in the extreme. Keeping all 212 Democrats together and finding a half-dozen Republicans to form a majority was always going to be enormously difficult. And there really are no moderate Republicans. There’s a right wing, led by Kevin McCarthy (for the moment), and a far-right wing, led by no one. But if a consensus choice had emerged, we could have avoided the horrors I mentioned above. I also happen to think it would have been good politics for the Democrats.

Unfortunately, it did not come to pass. Two years after Jan. 6, 2021, the insurrectionists finally succeeded in taking over the House. God save the United States of America.

Liz Cheney for speaker

Earlier today I posted on Mastodon what I thought was a commonsense though impossible idea: the Democrats should nominate Liz Cheney for speaker. There didn’t seem like there would be any chance of that happening. There still doesn’t, although right-wing candidate Kevin McCarthy has just lost the third round of voting at the hands of the ultra-right.

But consider the possibilities. If you could get all of the Democratic House members to vote for Cheney, she would only need about a half-dozen Republican votes. I don’t know whether there are that many rational Republicans left to do such a thing, but maybe there are.

I’m not a fan of Liz Cheney on policy issues, but I admire her integrity and commitment to principle. The Republicans won the election and the Democrats lost, so I wouldn’t be expecting too much. But perhaps a Cheney speakership could lead to a few positive outcomes. She could agree ahead of time to stop Republican efforts to hold the debt ceiling hostage, which would risk default. She could draw sensible limits around Republican attempts to investigate the Jan. 6 commission of which she was part. And she could say no to Republican fantasies about turning the next two years into a witch hunt with Hunter Biden at the center.

Other than that, I would imagine she’d pursue the agenda of a typical conservative and work with Republicans more than Democrats. Progressive dreams are not going to come true in a House where Republicans outnumber Democrats. But is it too much to ask for decency and normality?

Update: Sorry, I forgot to note that there is no constitutional requirement that the speaker be a member of the House. That should clear up some confusion.

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.

Earlier:

A WashPost story sheds new light on big media’s failure to expose George Santos

Sarah Ellison of The Washington Post (free link) has a terrific story on The North Shore Leader, the Long Island weekly that broke parts of the George Santos story several weeks before the election only to be ignored by larger media outlets. I want to focus on this astonishing section:

Despite a well-heeled and well-connected readership — the Leader’s publisher says it counts among its subscribers Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Jesse Watters and several senior people at Newsday, a once-mighty Long Island-based tabloid that has won 19 Pulitzers — no one followed its story before Election Day.

For obvious reasons, we can set Fox News aside. But one of the big questions all along has been why Newsday didn’t follow up. Now we know, at least according to the Leader, that “several senior people at Newsday” are among its readers. Assuming they saw the Leader’s coverage, which included a hard-hitting news story as well as a withering editorial endorsing Santos’ Democratic opponent, then there is no excuse for Newsday’s failure to dive in. Not to let The New York Times off the hook, either — though it is primarily a national and international newspaper, it does purport to cover the New York metro area. Yes, it’s the Times that finally exposed Santos as the fraud that he is, but it’s a little late.

I’ve seen a number of observers try to fit this square peg into the round hole of the ongoing local news crisis. Frankly, this strikes me as having more to do with journalistic sloth and arrogance, which have always been with us.

Finally, I talked with the USA Today podcast “Five Things” about the media and political breakdown that led to Santos’ winning a congressional seat without anyone other than the Leader holding him up to any scrutiny. You can listen here.

Earlier:

A Long Island weekly had the goods on Santos several weeks before Election Day

The North Shore Leader described Santos as “bizarre, unprincipled and sketchy” in an editorial published Oct. 20.

Josh Marshall, who’s been all over the George Santos story, has an update that casts media non-coverage of this fraud in an entirely new light. It turns out that there was a local news outlet reporting on several aspects of Santos’ fabricated history before Election Day.

You may recall that Santos is the newly elected Republican congressman from western Long Island who picked off a Democratic seat on the strength of his phony résumé. As best as anyone can tell, he’s been lying about his education, his career and maybe even whether he’s Jewish and gay. The New York Times exposed those fabrications on Monday, leaving a number of outraged observers to ask where the Times was last fall.

My own take was that the Times, as a national and international paper, couldn’t be expected to vet every candidate in New York State. At a certain point, you have to hold political candidates themselves responsible, and it appears that Santos’ Democratic opponent, Robert Zimmerman, didn’t do a very good job. As Marshall observes, the dossier Zimmerman’s campaign put together focused on the usual stuff — that Santos was a MAGA-loving Trump supporter — and missed the bigger picture.

But wait. A newspaper in Santos’ district called The North Shore Leader had it all along. Marshall posted the details on Thursday. As Leader reporter Niall Fitzgerald writes:

In a story first broken by the North Shore Leader over four months ago, the national media has suddenly discovered that US Congressman-elect George Santos (R-Queens / Nassau) — dubbed “George Scam-tos” by many local political observers — is a deepfake liar who has falsified his background, assets, and contacts. He is fact a wanted petty criminal in Brazil.

Fitzgerald doesn’t link to that earlier story, but the Leader endorsed Zimmerman nearly three weeks before Election Day and raised some serious questions about Santos’ background:

In 2020 Santos, then age 32, was the NY Director of a nearly $20 million venture fund called “Harbor City Capital” — until the SEC shut it down as a “Ponzi Scheme.” Over $6 million from investors was stolen — for personal luxuries like Mercedes cars, huge credit card bills, and a waterfront home — and millions from new investors were paid out to old investors. Classic Bernie Madoff “Ponzi scheme” fraud.

Santos’ campaign raises similar concerns. On paper Santos has raised over $2 million. But the money seems to have vanished — or never been there. Huge sums are listed with the FEC for personal expenses — like Brooks Brothers, Florida beach resorts, lavish restaurants and limo services — but many hundreds of thousands more disappear into a black hole of dubious “consulting fees.”

In other words, much of the Santos story was already out there before Election Day. It’s too bad that the Leader’s endorsement didn’t influence enough voters to drag Zimmerman across the finish line.

The Leader’s endorsement raises serious questions about the timing of the Times’ reporting. I was willing to give them a pass for not doing a scrub on Santos in the absence of specific information. Large news organizations rely on oppo research to signal them whether they need to do a deeper dive, and, as I said, Zimmerman’s oppo was lame. But the Times does cover metropolitan New York, and it should be a basic part of every metro newspaper’s duties to scan the local papers. The Leader’s endorsements ran in its Oct. 20 edition, more than enough time to gear up for an exposé.

Nor could the Times dismiss the Leader’s endorsement of Zimmerman as an act of partisan hackery. The Leader endorsed four candidates for the House, and three of them were Republicans. The Zimmerman endorsement laments that it couldn’t back a Republican in that district as well.

The Leader does not report its circulation to the Alliance for Audited Media, but according to the Leader’s About page, the paper was founded more than 60 years ago and reaches “thousands of Gold Coast readers.” Sounds like a fairly reliable source to me.

And let’s not let Newsday off the hook, either. Long Island’s daily paper, once regarded as among the best in the country, still has a substantial readership, according to the most recent figures filed with the AAM — 218,953 print and digital subscriptions on Sunday and an average of 191,413 on weekdays. I could find no evidence that Newsday examined Santos’ background in any substantial way in the run-up to the election. Don’t they read the weeklies?

At the very least, interns at the Times and at Newsday should be assigned to scan the local papers every day. If they had, it seems probable that someone would have seen the Leader’s reporting and amplified it before voters headed to the polls and elected a candidate who appears to be an utter fraud. Santos is even on the take from Russian interests, as The Daily Beast Reported — several weeks after the election.

It will be fascinating to see whether Santos can survive in office. At one time we’d be counting the days. But Kevin McCarthy needs him in his pathetic campaign for House speaker. Incredibly, Santos is likely to survive until the next election.

Why did a House committee release Trump’s tax returns? Because it could.

The Internal Revenue Service. Photo (cc) 2009 by Chris Phan.

I’ve been talking about this on Mastodon and Facebook, and most people seem to be unexercised about it. But I don’t understand the rationale for releasing Donald Trump’s tax returns to the public.

When Trump refused to release them during his two presidential campaigns, he wasn’t violating any law or regulation. He was simply violating a norm. He has not been charged with a crime. There is no connection between the House Ways and Means Committee’s investigation into whether the IRS was auditing him while he was president, as it was supposed to do (but didn’t), and its decision to make his returns public.

All I can come up with is that the committee has the right to do so, and that Democratic members decided they’d better do it now before the Republicans take control in a few weeks.

Why the Times didn’t expose George Santos before Election Day

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.

A political theory that helps explain why not much changed this week

Sen.-elect John Fetterman of Pennsylvania was one of a number of Democrats who exceeded expectations this week. Photo (cc) 2019 by Gov. Tom Wolf.

In light of the Democrats’ unexpectedly strong showing, I want to call your attention to a recent Ezra Klein podcast. Political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck, who surveyed some 500,000 voters for their new book about the 2020 election, “The Bitter End,” with Chris Tausanovitch, makes what I think are three crucial arguments for understanding our political culture at the moment.

  • Swing voters have all but disappeared as traditional issues such as the legacy of the New Deal have shifted to issues of identity — reproductive freedom, LGBTQ rights, racial equity and the like. Voters might change their minds from time to time on, say, taxes, but they’re not going to change their minds on matters of personal autonomy. Nor, in the end, were they especially swayed by inflation. That’s why this week’s predicted red wave is looking more like a red trickle — if that. Sides and Vavreck refer to this as “calcification.”
  • Because the electorate is so closely divided, tiny swings in the election results can result in major changes. For instance, it appears likely that only a few seats will change hands in the House, yet that’s going to result in a Donald Trump-supporting speaker, Kevin McCarthy, and the empowerment of far-right fringe figures like Marjorie Taylor Greene. (But not, perhaps, Lauren Boebert.)
  • Because the party out of power is never any more than a slight shift away from regaining the majority, there is no incentive for either major party to engage in any significant rethinking. Sides and Vavreck point out that the Republicans engaged in quite a bit of self-reflection after Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney for a second term in 2012. But after Trump lost in 2020, self-reflection was replaced with a doubling-down on Trumpism and an insistence that the election had been stolen.

More than any polls, the Sides and Vavreck thesis explains why President Biden’s popularity could be as low as it is (53.5% disapprove/41.4% approve, according to FiveThirtyEight) without it having much effect on House and Senate races. It also explains why the Dobbs decision overturning abortion rights was less potent than Democrats had hoped — voters were already lined up on both sides the blue-red divide. Finally, it explains why the pollsters can be wrong and not wrong at the same time — they’re dealing with differences that are just too small to measure.

Student debt relief was a good first step. Now we need systemic reform.

Tuition was surprisingly affordable during the Middle Ages

Much of the whining you hear about President Biden’s decision to cancel some student loan debt is coming from people who have no idea what has happened to the cost of a college education.

When I was attending Northeastern University in the 1970s (like many back then, I was the first in my family to graduate from college), the cost was trivial. Not only that, but editors at the student paper, The Northeastern News, received generous tuition stipends. Today, the paper, now known as The Huntington News, is independent, and the students get nothing for their hard work.

Not only did I graduate without debt, but I was also able to get my master’s in American history at Boston University by attending night school, paid for in full out of my crappy newspaper salary. It turned out to be the best investment I ever made: Years later, when I sought to return to Northeastern as a faculty member, the first question I was asked was if I had a master’s.

So I certainly don’t begrudge the relief more recent graduates are getting as a result of Biden’s action. If anything, many people will still find themselves deep in debt, though somewhat less than they are now. I do, however, think debt relief raises two questions that need to be answered.

• What about the role of colleges and universities, whose costs have risen far in excess of inflation during the past generation? Federal loan guarantees were part of that, as it gave them an incentive to compete on amenities rather than price. Shouldn’t we play some part in solving the problem? At the very least, maybe  institutions that fail to hold annual increases within a certain range should become ineligible for federal loans.

• What about future graduates? Their debt burden is going to be just as heavy, if not heavier. Are we setting ourselves up for round after round of debt forgiveness? Or might it be possible to construct a more equitable, sustainable system that doesn’t revolve around ever-rising costs, massive loans and calls for debt cancellation?

Those of us who work in higher education are well aware of the sacrifices our students and their families are making, and we often talk about what will happen after the bubble inevitably bursts. There are already some early signs, with young people seeing less value in college than was the case a few years ago. We need to change the way we do business.