Of all the strange things we saw as the Republican-led House tried to elect a speaker last week, a New York representative-elect who embellished, invented and lied about his background was right among them.
But George Santos’ story was on my mind for another reason.
At the end of last year, Sarah Ellison reported for The Washington Post about the North Shore Leader, which questioned Santos’ wealth and background months before The New York Times took up the story.
“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.’”
The story goes on to point out a few of the reasons the Leader’s reporting didn’t get picked up more widely by the national press, including a shrinking news force. For The Bulwark, Report for America’s Steve Waldman gets into the nuances of the local news ecosystem and how it impacted this story.
But there’s also at least a little precedent for local newsrooms breaking and continuing to cover huge stories with nothing happening until national steps in.
That was the case back in 2003, when the Albany (New York) Times Union started covering the man who’d later become well known for running a sex cult whose victims included a famous actress. Here’s what I wrote in 2019:
The Albany (New York) Times Union’s coverage of Keith Raniere and his alleged cult, Nxivm (pronounced nex-ee-um, like the medicine) began in 2003. It included Raniere’s attempt to build a headquarters, countless lawsuits against detractors and defectors, his questionable business, his history of preying on minors and the group he built around himself. A reporter working at Metroland, an alt-weekly in Albany, uncovered Raniere’s tactics for persuasion, how he silenced critics and his obsession with a former girlfriend.
But nothing stopped Raniere or the group until a 2017 New York Times story.
“Why Nxivm founder Keith Raniere is only now being tried … is a lingering mystery,” said an editorial in the Times Union in May. “Officials here didn’t merely drop the ball; they never even picked it up.”
Watching the Santos story and rereading the Nxivm saga (from a very different time in local news) made me think that it doesn’t just take a strong local and national press to stop liars, thieves and criminals. Even when there are layers and levels of reporting, without other institutions willing to do their jobs, these guys can fall through the cracks.
The ecosystem matters, and the oldest version of it is fractured and failing right now. But other institutions matter, too.
Here’s our coverage of The Sex Cult Next Door.
The other thing that stands out when local coverage breaks through is how often it’s built from solid and well-resourced investigative teams. Through that approach, there are several recent examples where local coverage ignited important changes, including The Indianapolis Star’s investigation into Larry Nassar and child sex abuse inside U.S. Gymnastics, the Miami Herald’s coverage of Jeffrey Epstein’s sex trafficking and the Tampa Bay Times’ investigation into a lead smelter that was poisoning employees and its community.