The George Santos story shows how local news AND institutions should work

The George Santos story shows how local news AND institutions should work

Of all the weird things we saw as the Republican-led House of Representatives 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 the story of George Santos was on my mind for another reason.

Late 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 picked up the story.

“The leader reluctantly endorsed Santos’ Democratic opponent the following month. “This paper would like to support a Republican,” she wrote, but Santos “is so eccentric, unprincipled and stage-crafted that we can’t,” adding, “He brags like an insecure child — but it’s likely that he’s just a fabulist—a fake.'”

The story goes on to point out some of the reasons why the Leader’s reporting was not heard 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 influenced this story.

All valid.

But there’s also at least a little precedent for local newsrooms to blow up and continue to cover big stories without anything happening until the national one comes in.

That was the case in 2003, when the Albany (New York) Times Union began covering the man who later became 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 drug) began in 2003. It included Raniere’s attempt to build a headquarters, countless lawsuits against opponents and deserters. his shady business, his history of preying on minors and the group he built around himself. A reporter working for Metroland, an alt-weekly in Albany, revealed Raniere’s persuasion tactics, how he silenced critics and his obsession with an ex-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 an ongoing mystery,” said an editorial in the Times Union in May. “The officials here didn’t just drop the ball; they never even got it.”

Watching the Santos story and re-reading the Nxivm saga (from a very different time in the 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 job, these people can fall through the cracks.

The ecosystem matters, and the older version of it is broken and broken now. But other institutions are also important.

Here’s our coverage of The Sex Cult Next Door.

The other thing that stands out when local coverage spreads is how often it’s built by solid, well-resourced investigative teams. Through this approach, there are several recent examples where local coverage sparked significant change, including the Indianapolis Star’s investigation into Larry Nassar and child sexual abuse within USA Gymnastics, the Miami Herald’s coverage of Jeffrey Epstein’s sex trafficking, and the investigation of Tampa Bay Times about a lead smelter that was poisoning its workers and community.

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