The George Santos controversy was first reported in a little newspaper, but nobody seemed attentive. This is how North Shore Leader broke the George Santos scandal.
A small Long Island publication raised red flags about its local candidate months before the New York Times revealed in a December report that Rep.-elect George Santos (R-N.Y.) had forged most of his résumé and biography.
When few publications were reporting on Santos at the time, The North Shore Leader wrote in September about his “inexplicable rise” in reported net worth, which went from virtually nothing in 2020 to as high as $11 million two years later.
The report also pointed out other peculiarities about the self-described gay Trump supporter with Jewish ancestry, who later helped turn the blue 3rd Congressional District of New York red and is currently being investigated by law enforcement for deceiving the voters about his past.
“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.”
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The next month, The Leader grudgingly lent support to Santos’ Democratic rival. “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 that national headlines are made of: A hyperlocal publication like the Leader undertakes the footwork, regional papers confirm and expand on the story, and before you know it, an emerging political scandal is being televised coast to coast.
But that structure, which has weakened for decades as news economies have been destroyed, appears to have failed altogether this time.
Despite a wealthy and well-connected readership — the Leader’s publisher claims to count among its subscribers — No one pursued the story before Election Day, including Fox News personalities Sean Hannity and Jesse Watters, as well as numerous senior executives at Newsday, a once-mighty Long Island-based tabloid that has won 19 Pulitzers.
The Leader is about as local as local news gets. The majority of the workforce of the weekly, which is published and mostly operated by attorney Grant Lally, whose parents purchased it in the late 1990s, works part-time and has other jobs to help pay the bills. “Nobody can survive on local papers alone,” Lally said in an interview.
Lally was especially well-prepared to cover the contest for New York’s 3rd Congressional District. He had previously run for the seat in 1994, 1996, and 2014. Lally, a lifelong Republican, worked as George W. Bush’s floor manager in Miami during the presidential race recount in 2000.
The Leader’s personnel, which includes students and retirees, are all immersed in the predominantly rich local towns on Long Island’s North Shore, providing them with access to local political gossip. “We can boil that down very quickly,” Lally said.
Lally recalled that he had lunch with Santos a few years ago when he was searching for support for his career in politics. “Right from the start, there was something off with him,” he recalled.
Lally was informed by Santos that his ancestors were Belgian. Years later, according to Lally, he observed Santos “talking about his grandparents who had fled the Holocaust from Ukraine” while out campaigning. “It was just a flagrant, blatant concoction,” Lally said.
Lally has kept in touch with his old campaign workers, who occasionally called him to share rumors about regional elections during the spring and summer. “You wouldn’t believe what we are seeing about Santos,” Lally recalled being told on some of those calls.
One report came from a nearby home builder who claimed to have taken Santos on a tour of Long Island mansions the candidate claimed to own and was interested in renovating. Lally claimed that Santos refused to allow the builder into any of the houses. He insisted that he had tenants who kept them out.
Another call came from a state legislator who reported that a home in the Hamptons that Santos claimed to possess was actually owned by someone else and was worth much less than the candidate claimed. These hints aided the Leader’s reporting and editorial, both of which were highly dubious of Santos’s claims of unexpected wealth.
“We expected it to pop a lot more than it did,” Lally said. For starters, he believed Santos’s rival, Robert Zimmerman (D), would have made more of the Leader’s endorsement and “pushed” the inconsistencies his newspaper unearthed into bigger outlets like 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.”
Newsday spokesperson Kim Como declined to comment on specific inquiries regarding the paper’s coverage of Santos but issued the following statement instead: “We are continuing to cover the Santos story every day.”
Since there are fewer newspapers covering the news than in the past, it is possible that the Leader’s reporting got lost in the shuffle. Government figures show a 60% decrease in the number of journalists since 2005.
This year, the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University conducted research that revealed an average of two newspapers are closing their doors every week in the US. Since 2005, the country has lost more than a quarter of its newspapers, and by 2025, a third will likely have disappeared. More than 1,600 counties currently have just one newspaper, which is often a weekly.
The Nassau County District Attorney’s Office has opened an investigation on Santos George after he was caught lying on his resume by fabricating his past.
“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.”