TV Stations Can’t Miss Another Santos Story In The Offing
For me, the question is not who is George Santos; it’s why is George Santos.
Why is Santos a member in the U.S. House of Representatives from New York’s 3rd District after making campaign misrepresentations of background, experience and education so fabulous and flimsy that they should have been easily exposed as such by one of the local news outlets in the nation’s largest media market?
The answer is, none did.
Well, one small weekly did.
The North Shore Leader caught on to Santos. It wrote about Santos’ unexplained and unusual campaign funding and skewered Santos in an editorial endorsing his Democratic opponent.
The partisan paper said it preferred a Republican like Santos for the seat, but said he is “so sketchy, unprincipled and bizarre that we cannot…. He boasts like an insecure child — but he’s mostly just a fabulist — a faker.”
Unfortunately, the Leader was too small. Nobody paid any attention to it.
In an interview with PBS NewsHour, Leader Publisher Grant Lally said he was “disappointed” that nobody had picked up on its reporting. “We did send the paper out to a lot of the local organs, a lot of the media.”
Where was Newsday? The 3rd District covering much of Nassau County is squarely on its turf. It’s supposed to be the paper of record for the western half of Long Island.
The New York Post, The New York Daily News and The Wall Street Journal were also missing in action.
The august New York Times dropped the ball, too, although it partially redeemed itself by exposing Santos as a fraud in a well-reported story that also alleged criminal activity and thrust Santos into a media storm. Published several weeks after the election, it came far too late for the voters of the 3rd District.
Those voters are the victims here. They had every reason to assume that, if anything was wrong with Santos’ bio, one of their trusted media outlets would have let them know. Now, because Santos is so politically wounded, they are barely represented in Congress.
Overall, the newspapers did a poor job. But they are not my beat. TV stations are.
The so-called flagships of the Big Four broadcast networks — WABC, WCBS, WNBC and WNYW — failed their viewers as badly as the papers and as surely as if they had overlooked a violent nor’easter churning up the coast.
These are not financially strapped small-market stations. These are broadcasting’s richest and finest — or at least ought to be. Their owners are in the front rank of media: Disney, Paramount, Comcast and Fox.
I understand that TV stations have traditionally not done the same kind of local journalism as newspapers do (or did). They have never immersed themselves in the nitty-gritty of political and public affairs reporting. They’re on the street, reporting the fires, crimes and crashes and standing by to keep the citizenry informed when disasters strike.
I also understand stations can’t do it all. Stations in small and medium-size markets have limited resources. Large-market stations would have to cover countless government entities and hundreds of races at the federal, state and local levels.
So, I propose a modest rule that should apply to all markets, not just New York: If a station accept ads for a political race, it must seriously cover it. This seems fair. According to Kantar, all TV stations raked in $4.3 billion in political in the 2021-22 election cycle. Doesn’t it make sense that a portion of that be plowed back into coverage of the biggest and most important races — that is, the ones that buy TV?
By scanning the political ad files of the New York stations, I can see they all benefitted handsomely from many races at all levels, including a dozen or so House races. The Santos campaign didn’t spend on TV, but his Democratic rival Robert Zimmerman did, more than $400,000 on WABC alone. Yet, it couldn’t find the resources to properly check out either candidate.
By “seriously covering” a race, I mean more than some sound bites extracted from a half-hour softball interview with the candidate.
I mean following the candidate around for a week and fact-checking his claims and sizing up his crowds and personal appeal.
I mean looking deeply into the incumbent candidates’ records to see if you can spot any suspicious correlations between his backers and pork he has helped rolled.
I mean not sitting around relying on candidate opposition research — or some tiny weekly newspaper — to come up with “the dirt.”
I mean checking out the candidates’ sources of campaign funds and identifying the people behind any SuperPAC’s that are supporting him or her in TV ads.
I mean doing a profile of the candidate that includes interview with friends, enemies and business associates. (There may not be room on the air for such reporting, but there is online.)
I mean going beyond the issues that tend to dominate campaigns (climate, abortion, policing and the culture war) to figure out who he or she is really representing when in Washington.
I know from my days in Washington that lawmakers align themselves with certain industries and interest groups that their constitutes rarely hear about. Are they carrying water for Big Tech, Big Pharma or, dare I say, Big Media?
And, of course, at the very least, I mean vetting the candidates’ campaign bio from their websites to make sure that they worked in the places they say they did and went to the schools they say they did. If that’s too much for the news staff, I suggest sending the bios to the HR department. They will check them out in a few hours. Had this been done in the Santos case, he might have been stopped well before the election.
By following this rule — cover races in which candidates buy time — stations might get a great story. In any event, they will have the satisfaction of knowing that they fulfilled their obligation to their viewers, and they may avoid the embarrassment of being the next to get Santosed.
Harry A. Jessell is editor at large of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted here. You can read earlier columns here.
March 16, 2023 at 9:15 am
An easier solution might be to amend the Constitution to remove (before or after being sworn in) any successful candidate who lied about their qualifications for office. It would save time spent fact-checking for needles in haystacks and also remove the candidates’ incentive to lie about anything. Who knows, it might have stopped Trump.
March 16, 2023 at 9:32 am
Yet it’s a safe bet that if that same newspaper did a story about an adorable puppy rescued from a well, at least one TV station would have picked that up in a heartbeat. I’ve worked in local journalism for decades, and at the same local paper for 17 years. I can’t count the number of human interest stories that I’ve seen grace our front page that show up at 6pm on TV two days later.
That said, I’m going to put a little of this on the local paper too. Surely they know some people at those other media outlets. They had made their move, putting the Santos story out. That could have easily been followed up with another story, or even with a phone call to a colleague….”we really don’t have the resources to delve as deeply into this guys past as we’d like. I know you can do that. Maybe we partner up on a deeper dive-we’re sure there’s a major story here.”
March 16, 2023 at 10:03 am
Great commentary, Harry, as usual. I won’t name any names because there is currently legal action pending, but I recently had a friend, working in this industry, whose young, adult daughter had her entire savings account at a MAJOR bank wiped out as a result of “SIM Swapping Fraud” when she took her phone to a MAJOR mobile phone company for repair. According to the information I was told, the bank dropped the ball on several levels but did NOT make their customer (my friend’s daughter) whole. A local TV station sent their well-known investigative – “on your side” and “working hard for you” – reporter to investigate. The story was filed and eventually broadcast on a local network O&O station here in NYC, where the fraud/theft occurred. The piece did not name the bank, or the cell phone company, I assume out of fear of either losing a sponsor or some legal risk they weren’t willing to take. It was toothless, lacked courage, and did little to no good other than alert others to the risk of SIM Card swapping, which I guess is something. Ironically, a third-tier national tabloid celebrity-driven TV magazine show did a much more fact-filled, hard-hitting piece naming names, even though it was really out of their lane. However, a local journalist turned blogger is the one who really knocked it out of the park with a well-researched article. Perhaps the companies that own the local stations are too worried about making revenue to risk their news with original, investigative reporting that might jeopardize their shrinking revenue. I’d like to think not, but watching my friend’s family’s experience unfold opened my eyes a bit to the limitations of local broadcast news and their commitment to investigative journalism. My friend works in the media and has lots of contacts. Imagine Joe Six-Pack or someone else less connected?
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March 17, 2023 at 12:23 am
I was surprised that none of the major newspapers didn’t expose George Santos during the election the New York Times after the fact when Santos won he should resign. I read an article a little over a year ago how house seats in 92 over a hundred house seats in congress were up for grabs as a tossup now it is only about 40 seats that are tossup now which is sad.