A consequence of shrinking newsrooms

How an apparent serial fabulist got elected to Congress

NY Congressman-Elect George Santos (AP Photo/John Locher)
NY Congressman-Elect George Santos (AP Photo/John Locher)

If you’ve been following political news over the last few days chances are you’ve heard about NY Congressman-Elect George Santos. In November, Santos beat Democrat Robert Zimmerman in the race for NY Congressional District 3 (made up of Nassau County and parts of Queens). Santos appeared to be a model for a new generation of compassionate Republicans the young (34) a “self-made” son of Brazilian immigrants. He worked his way through college and then graduate school at NYC and went on to hold positions in prestigious financial institutions. He cared about the community and started an animal rescue. He was even openly gay, and had been touched by violence against the gay community, having lost 4 employees in the deadly 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting. That wasn’t Santos’s only experience with violence. His maternal grandparents were Ukrainian Jews who fled the Nazis in WW2.

What an incredible biography, almost too good to be true. And isn’t there a saying about that?

On December 19, 2022, over a month after Santos’s election, the New York Times ran a report questioning parts of his biography. And in the three days that have followed, a number of other news outlets, including the Daily Beast and the Jewish news publication The Forward, have run additional stories that have unraveled almost every aspect of Santos’s history. Neither Baruch College or NYU could find student records for Santos. The investment firms he claimed to work for likewise have no record of employing him. His animal rescue doesn’t appear to have existed and none of the 19 victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting have ties back to anywhere Santos worked. While his grandparents might have been Jewish, they appear to have been born and raised in Brazil. And while he might indeed be gay, his biography failed to note that up until just before his first congressional run in 2020, he had been married to a woman.

The kicker about all of these revelations is that almost all were discovered using the most basic journalistic methods. All it took was searching some public records (no filings for the animal rescue and the marriage/divorce certificates), looking at genealogy websites (the grandparents), and calling various institutions (educational and work records). The problem, of course, was doing all of that takes time and staff.

And this is where we get to the headline of this article. As of 2020 New York District 3 contains approximately 727,390 people. While it touches on Queens the majority of it is considered to be Long Island. So while the three NYC papers of record cover it, it isn’t as big a focus as other city districts. That means that the only major newspaper covering the district is Newsday.

And like most newspapers, Newsday’s staff has been shrinking for decades. As far as I can tell they only have one or two reporters dedicated to Nassau county politics. And, in addition to covering the Congressional District, those two reporters are also expected to cover the County government (including the Executive and Legislature) as well as local governments in the county’s two cities, three townships, and sixty-four incorporated villages.

All of this means that the Newsday Nassau County political staff necessarily needs to go after “low hanging fruit”–stories that lend themselves to the pressures of feeding the beast: writing a set number of articles a day or week. This is not an environment that allows most reporters the time to make those calls or do the type of desk research that’s necessary to uncover the type of facts we have seen in the Santos case.

While we cannot know for sure, I suspect that if we were able to go back to the days when Newsday would have a dedicated Congressional reporter its unlikely that Santos would have gotten so far without said journalist questioning his past[1]. It would have been expected that such a reporter would have built a background file on the candidate once he had won the primary. And collecting that data would have surfaced many of these questions.

The journalist Margaret Sullivan has spent the last few years warning about how local news has been largely failing to hold politicians accountable. Usually, her focus has been on news deserts: areas where the local newspapers and independent radio newsrooms have long since gone out of business. However, in this case, we have something different: a community that actually has a newspaper of record that still is being published. Unfortunately, just because you have a news source covering your area, it doesn’t mean that said source actually has the staff necessary to actually cover the area effectively. And that illusion of coverage, in the end, is just as dangerous to democracy as the news desert.

[1] – I imagine some people will ask why the Republican party (state and local) didn’t vet Santos. In response, I would remind you of good Doctor Taylor’s constant reminders about how little control our political parties have over the nomination process. There’s a bigger question about why the Democrats didn’t do better oppositional research. As it turns out Santos’s opponent had raised questions about his past and finances, but no reporters at the time followed up. As for the state Democratic party, it’s no secret that due to political infighting, they more or less abandoned a number of more progressive candidates like Robert Zimmerman.

FILED UNDER: 2022 Election, Congress, LGBTQ Issues, Media, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , ,
Matt Bernius
About Matt Bernius
Matt Bernius is a design researcher working to create more equitable government systems and experiences. He's currently a Principal User Researcher on Code for America's "GetCalFresh" program, helping people apply for SNAP food benefits in California. Prior to joining CfA, he worked at Measures for Justice and at Effective, a UX agency. Matt has an MA from the University of Chicago.


  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    There’s a bigger question about why the Democrats didn’t do better oppositional research. As it turns out Santos’s opponent had raised questions about his past and finances, but no reporters at the time followed up.

    Hand a PI five grand and he’d have all of this in a nice, neat binder.

  2. CSK says:

    Why did Santos lie so blatantly and egregiously? Because he thought he could get away with it? If so, he was right.

  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    We’ve been talking about this for the last couple days. His opponent was guilty of some serious campaign malpractice.

  4. The point about the lack of local reporting is an excellent (and underappreciated) one.

  5. DK says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Seriously. Not to negate the very smart point about local reporting, but this is primarily the Democratic Party’s fault. Democrats could have bombarded Long Island with ads and mailers and social media posts saying, “This guy is a fraud, here’s why…” regardless of what newspapers do or don’t do. How many people learn about their House candidates by reading local papers and watching local TV news anyway? I don’t know anybody in my cohort who does, maybe it’s an over-40 thing?

    This is an embarrassment for various New York Democrats so I understand why they want to shift blame. But this is ultimately their miscue. Like, “why didn’t Republicans vet him?” Chile please. Bold to assume Republicans don’t want to elect con artists and liars. Like asking why didn’t they vet Trump and JD Vance.

  6. CSK says:


    The Democrats clearly failed to do their opposition research.

  7. Sleeping Dog says:

    Interesting Times follow up by a Dem opposition research pro, who wasn’t involved in any NY race.


    It will probably be impossible to determine definitively. But my answer is that if you look closely, Democrats did do the basic outlines of this opposition research, just not enough for the full picture to come into view. In the end, many people missed the biggest story about him: that he may be a serial fabulist. Instead, Democrats emphasized a different story about Mr. Santos, for reasons that make a lot of sense.


    Let’s return to the research process: After a book is completed, communications staff members, campaign officials and consultants are briefed on the best hits the researchers could find for pitching to reporters and for advertising purposes. We can see one outcome of those briefings in a research-packed news release from the D.C.C.C. that blasted Mr. Santos as a “shady Wall Street bro.” Specifically, it highlights the absence of the nonprofit in the I.R.S. database and his previously undisclosed personal finances. It’s not the exact story, but months ago, a Democratic operative had the thought to call him “untrustworthy.”

    Then what happened? The D.C.C.C. research department probably moved on to the next project. This year, as they do every two years, Democrats competed in hundreds of House races. The junior staff member may even be moved to a position at a technically distinct division and be legally unable to communicate with his or her former co-workers. That’s how some lines of inquiries never progress beyond PDF files.

    So yeah, lack of local press resources are part of the problem

  8. Dutchgirl says:

    How are the voters in his district reacting? Do they even care? If they don’t care, then the problem is bigger than than local reporting or dem opposition research. Voters learned lots about Walker in GA and still gave him 48.6% of the vote in the run off.

  9. CSK says:


    People in that district voted for Santos 55-45, basically a landslide. This was Zimmerman’s 4th shot at running for office. He lost. Again.

    This, afaik, is a Democrat-leaning district. Maybe they just don’t like Zimmerman.

  10. Crusty Dem says:

    I understand that Newsday is the local paper, but given that 1) he ran a similarly fabulist campaign in 2020 2) you could stand in an office at the NY Times and look East and see NY’s 3rd district and 3) the NY Times has no shortage of reporters, I wouldn’t absolve the Times of responsibility, even if they managed to come through with the goods 6 wks after the election.

  11. Thomm says:

    A person with bad credit goes through more scrutiny by a lender (job verification, address verification, etc.) when trying to buy a car than anybody did on this guy. And, those lenders get hundreds of applications per day.

  12. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Sleeping Dog: So yeah, lack of local press resources are part of the problem

    And lack of initiative on the part of the candidate is the rest of the problem. C’mon, really? The D.C.C.C. was supposed to get him installed in the house? Yeah, no. They can do some basic leg work, maybe get the ball to his own 45 yard line, but it is up to the candidate to carry the ball the rest of the way.

    He. didn’t. do. it.

  13. Kylopod says:

    @CSK: Tangled up in blue.


  14. CSK says:
  15. Michael Cain says:

    @Michael Reynolds: That was my thought. The DNC, DCCC, and New York State Democratic Party throw around umpty-ump million dollars a year, and can’t hire some competent investigators?

  16. Kylopod says:

    @CSK: You know Bob Dylan’s real name?

  17. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Kylopod: Zimmerman, isn’t it? I could google it but that would be cheating.

  18. DK says:

    @Dutchgirl: Santos’s history of Jan 6 insurrection did come out pre-election. Long Island voters didn’t care about that because something something inflation something something crime.

    Now gas prices are falling and they are to be represented in Congress by an actual criminal.

  19. CSK says:


    Indeed I do. But I didn’t get the “tangled up in blue.”

  20. CSK says:


    Yup. From Hibbing, Minnesota.

  21. Matt Bernius says:

    Couple of follow-up thoughts after reviewing everyone’s comments:

    1. There is definitely a lot of blame to go around for this. And the Candidate and the Democrats definitely don’t escape that. However, my broader point is that investigating and vetting candidates was historically a role the press played. And this was a clear case where that did not happen in a timely fashion. That doesn’t negate the need to parties to do good opposition researcher.

    2. To @Crusty Dem’s point, my goal isn’t to excuse the New York Times for not investigating and reporting on this sooner. They are without a doubt the most well funded news organization in the Tri-State area. That said, as someone who grew up on Long Island, it’s worth noting that this has traditionally been considered a Long Island district. And that makes it specifically something Newsday should have been covering.

    3. As far as the NY Democratic Party and the DCCC… things are really complex and there has been a LOT of infighting in recent years. First, the NY Democratic Party is structured very differently than most state Democratic parties. For more on that I recommend this article:

    So already things are not as centralized as in other states. Also, the majority of folks in charge of the State Party were appointed by and are loyal to Andrew Cuomo. So there’s been a rift between them and more progressive candidates for quite some time. Then we also have to call out that the chairperson of the DCCC is NY Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney. Maloney has also been at war with NY progressive democrats for the last few years as well (going so far as to withhold aid at times). And that infighting appears to have played an important role in costing him his seat in this year’s election: https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2022/11/sean-patrick-maloney-new-york-red-wave-dccc-house.html

    A well-run machine this is not. And I don’t know Maloney’s relationship with Zimmerman, but it’s entirely possible that the candidate didn’t get much if any help from either of those organizations.

    4. I have no idea how good a candidate Zimmerman was. I also think there’s truth to a recent statement he made to the press:

    This story is not a shock to me. We always knew [Santos] was running a scam against the voters & we raised many of these issues but were drowned out in the Govenor’s race where crime was the focus & the media had other priorities.”

    5. One last thing about this–ultimately there is very little to be done if indeed all the allegations prove to be true. The case could be referred to the House Ethics committee next year, however, it will be run by Republicans. And if Santos was to resign or lose his seat, then there would have to be a special election and the seat could go back to the Democrats. Given that Santos has already pledged to support Kevin McCarthy for speaker, that’s a highly unlikely possibility.

  22. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Who hires the PI and provides the 5 grand? (This is part of what Dr. Taylor is talking about in all those boring “institutional weakness” jags he takes.)

  23. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kylopod: Know the name, not the song. One might have to be a really intense Dylan fan to get this one. For me, Dylan was just another peacenik who can’t sing mostly.

  24. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    ” Then we also have to call out that the chairperson of the DCCC is NY Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney. Maloney has also been at war with NY progressive democrats for the last few years as well (going so far as to withhold aid at times). And that infighting appears to have played an important role in costing him his seat in this year’s election: https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2022/11/sean-patrick-maloney-new-york-red-wave-dccc-house.html

    See Mike? Your side is winning the war against the progressives contaminating liberalism/Democratic Party politics. Isn’t that great?

  25. Sleeping Dog says:


    Did you read the article?

    There were 438 congressional races, so whatever resources the DCCC has are going to be spread around. Was the effort in that particular race adequate? Who knows, but what ever was uncovered, that information gets provided to the local press, oops.

  26. Michael Cain says:

    @Matt Bernius:

    However, my broader point is that investigating and vetting candidates was historically a role the press played.

    Historically, the press was at least part of an oligopoly on news aggregation services, which in turn produced several revenue streams. This has not been true for years. Historically, the press was owned by people who had at least some interest in local affairs. Now, they are much more likely to be owned by a conglomerate whose only interest is extracting cash flow. This has been true for years.

    Long enough for the political parties to realize the press isn’t doing that job any more, and adjust. Although the descriptions of the New York state party provide an interesting background.

  27. Jen says:

    I’ve been harping on the negligence of the Democratic *candidate* for days.

    This is NOT the DCCC’s fault. This is not the DNC’s fault.

    I don’t know how more clearly to put this: when YOU decide to run for office, especially at the FEDERAL level, it is up to YOUR CAMPAIGN to research YOUR OPPONENT.

    It’s not hard.

  28. Kylopod says:

    Explaining the reference no one got:

    The Democrat who lost to George Santos is named Robert Zimmerman, which happens to be the real-life name of Bob Dylan. One of Dylan’s songs is “Tangled Up in Blue.” Maybe not his most famous song, but it did chart. I was suggesting Santos got, well, tangled up in a blue district.

    Okay, maybe it didn’t land.

  29. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Sleeping Dog: Did you read my comment? You know, the whole part about the DCCC maybe getting him to his own 45 yard line but after that it was up to him? Who was running for congress? The DCCC? No. Zimmerman was. It was HIS f’n job. Nobody else’s. Jesus f’n chrispo, I am so dawg damned tired of people blaming other’s for their own damned shortcomings. If he didn’t have the resources to do what needed to be done, WHO the F’s fault is that? It ain’t the DCCC’s fault. It is his and his alone. If he didn’t know what needed to be done or where to put his limited resources, again, it is his fault and his alone.

    And don’t try to hang me on the question of what he should or should not have done, I am not a politico and anyone following my advice deserves to lose. (i went thru that crap at BJ the other day)

    But he didn’t ask me, did he? He made the decisions and he lost. For the 4th time. Maybe, just maybe, he’s the problem? Ya think???? But no, he wants to blame others.

    Fuck that shit. He was the candidate. He lost. The mf’er should own it.

    eta: for the record, I read AN article about it. In fact, I know I did, because Jen, CSK, and others and I had a conversation about it. Did I read THIS article about it? Probably not.

    It’s still sour grapes from just another loser. He needs to put his big boy pants on.

  30. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Kylopod: FTR, I got the “Tangled up in Blue” reference. It is a favorite song of mine because I once lived thru a somewhat similar situation. Kinda… sorta… after a fashion. In my mind it was similar anyway.

  31. Gustopher says:

    @Kylopod: I’ve been watching this joke and it’s been like listening to “Tempest” — you know how it’s all going to play out, and it takes a very long time to get there, but in the end the ship sinks.

    (It’s little Bobby Zimmerman’s 15 minute long song about the Titanic, for those who like their jokes spelled out.)

  32. de stijl says:


    I got it.

    I have been to Hibbing. The most bustling burg in the Iron Range. 15, 20k souls or so. Great hockey town. Kicked Edina’s ass plenty of times in the state tournament.

    Imagine being a nerdy Jewish boy into poetry growing up in Hibbing, MN in the 50s. That Zimmerman kid did alright in my book despite his shaky, pitchy voice. Maybe because of it.