Months before the New York Times published a December article suggesting Rep.-elect George Santos (R-N.Y.) had fabricated much of his résumé and biography, a tiny publication on Long Island was ringing alarm bells about its local candidate.
The story noted other oddities about the self-described gay Trump supporter with Jewish heritage, who would go on to flip New York’s 3rd Congressional District from blue to red, and is now under investigation by authorities for misrepresenting his background to voters.
“Interestingly, Santos shows no U.S. real property in his financial disclosure, although he has repeatedly claimed to own ‘a mansion in Oyster Bay Cove’ on Tiffany Road and ‘a mansion in the Hamptons’ on Dune Road,” managing editor Maureen Daly wrote in the Leader. “For a man of such alleged wealth, campaign records show that Santos and his husband live in a rented apartment, in an attached rowhouse in Queens.”
The Leader reluctantly endorsed Santos’s Democratic opponent the next month. “This newspaper would like to endorse a Republican,” it wrote, but Santos “is so bizarre, unprincipled and sketchy that we cannot,” adding, “He boasts like an insecure child — but he’s most likely just a fabulist — a fake.”
It was the stuff national headlines are supposed to be built on: A hyperlocal outlet like the Leader does the legwork, regional papers verify and amplify the story, and before long an emerging political scandal is being broadcast coast to coast.
But that system, which has atrophied for decades amid the destruction of news economies, appears to have failed completely this time.
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.
When Santos apologized for “embellishing my résumé,” in a New York Post interview published Monday, he also vowed to serve out his term as a member of Congress.
Local news doesn’t get much more local than the Leader. A weekly published and primarily run by Grant Lally, an attorney whose parents bought it in the late 1990s, most of the newspaper’s staff works part time and holds down other jobs to pay the bills. “Nobody can survive on local papers alone,” Lally said in an interview.
Lally was particularly well-prepared to cover the race for New York’s 3rd District. He had run for the seat himself in 1994, 1996 and again in 2014. A lifelong Republican, Lally was George W. Bush’s floor manager in Miami during the 2000 presidential election recount.
The Leader’s staff, which includes students and retirees, all are steeped in the largely wealthy local communities on the North Shore of Long Island, which gives them access to local political gossip. “We can boil that down very quickly,” Lally said.
A few years ago, Lally said, he went to lunch with Santos, who was soliciting support for his political career. “Right from the start, there was something off with him,” he recalled.
Santos told Lally that his family was from Belgium. Years later, Lally said, he watched Santos on the campaign trail “talking about his grandparents who had fled the Holocaust from Ukraine.” “It was just a flagrant, blatant concoction,” Lally said.
Lally has stayed in touch with his former staffers from his political campaigns, who would sometimes call him to gossip about local elections over the spring and summer. “You wouldn’t believe what we are seeing about Santos,” Lally recalled being told on some of those calls.
One tip came from a local home builder who said he had driven Santos around Long Island to look at mansions the candidate claimed to own and wanted to renovate. But Santos wouldn’t let the builder inside any of the homes, Lally said. He claimed he had tenants that prevented them from entering.
Another call came from a state senator who said a house in the Hamptons that Santos claimed to own was worth far less than the candidate said and was owned by someone else anyway. These tips helped inform the Leader’s reporting and its editorial, which were deeply skeptical of Santos’s claims of sudden riches.
“We expected it to pop a lot more than it did,” Lally said. For one, he thought that Santos’s opponent, Robert Zimmerman (D), would have made more of the Leader’s endorsement and “pushed” the contradictions his newspaper uncovered into larger publications such as Newsday and the New York Times.
Zimmerman told The Washington Post there were “many red flags that were brought to the attention of many folks in the media” but that “frankly, a lot of folks in the media are saying they didn’t have the personnel, time or money to delve further” into the story. “This experience has shown me just how important it is for everyone to support local media.”
Kim Como, a spokeswoman for Newsday, did not answer specific questions about the paper’s coverage of Santos but said in a statement: “We are continuing to cover the Santos story every day.”
It’s possible that the Leader’s reporting fell into a void in part because there are fewer papers to cover the news than in the past. The number of journalists has declined by 60 percent since 2005, according to government statistics.
Research from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University this year found that on average two newspapers are disappearing in the United States every week. The nation has lost more than a quarter of its newspapers since 2005 and is on track to lose a third by 2025. There are now more than 1,600 counties with only one newspaper, typically a weekly.
“Local journalists are kind of like having beat cops walking the street,” said Tim Franklin, senior associate dean and professor at the Medill School. “Just as good beat cops can help keep a neighborhood safer, the presence of local journalists helps to keep our politics more honest and our government more accountable.”
Franklin predicts that “if we don’t fix the crisis in local news, we’re going to see more George Santos-type cases and instances of politicians going unchecked.”
Santos and his representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
Ashley Fetters Maloy and Azi Paybarah contributed to this report.