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The George Santos debacle and the local newspaper that can say, ‘I told you so’

Hidden in the barrage of news about  Rep. George Santos’s (R-N.Y.) feats of deceit is this vital question: How did one relatively obscure local newspaper on Long Island expose his mendacity when almost everyone else initially disregarded it?

This is the story about a story that almost slipped away. 

The North Shore Leader is a weekly newspaper with a circulation of 5,000 and a readership of about 20,000. It caters mostly to the “Gold Coast” of Long Island, a stretch of Vanderbilt, du Pont, Guggenheim and other estates now carved into mini-mansions and upscale subdivisions hugging the Long Island Sound, like pearls on a strand. To coin a phrase from a better-known newspaper, the Leader runs “all the news fit to print” — fit, that is, for sleepy suburbanites who don’t reflexively froth about their politics.

A visit to its website this week breaks the news that the Crab Meadow Park “Polar Plunge” raised $22,000…the village of Sea Cliff is getting a new master planner…the Nassau County police seized some stolen catalytic converters…and four students at Cold Spring Harbor High School were recognized by their county legislator for a project involving the sequencing of mosquito DNA. 

It was the North Shore Leader that exposed Santos’s corruption four months before any other media outlet. It alone picked up and ran with the DNA helix of lies spun with other lies to produce a life that never existed. Its reportage was the result of a mix of good sources and old-fashioned journalistic gum-shoeing, according to its owner.

The owner, by the way, is another surprise (at least, to me). He’s Grant Lally, and he’s a paragon of Republican politics. He ran against me for Congress in 2014; against former Democratic Rep. Gary Ackerman in 1994 and 1996; he signed and proselytized Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America”; worked on President George W. Bush’s Florida recount campaign; attended national Republican conventions; and informally advised the Bush administration on issues related to Northern Ireland.  

Grant Lally isn’t a liberal Democrat. He’s not even a shrinking violet Republican. How did he flag a story that almost escaped everyone else?

“There are a lot of phenomena here,” he told me in a conversation this week (which was considerably less heated than when we ran against each other). “Number one is that people are far more credulous than they used to be. Everything is filtered through electronic media. They’ll believe something online but won’t believe it if it happens right in front of them.” In other words, a news story with national ramifications hadn’t caught-on because it lacked a retweet by a social media phenom. Once, our eyes and ears revealed the truth. Now our thumbs do.

Lally also bemoans the decline of local newsrooms across the country. The dominant newspapers in the region are the New York Times, New York Post, Newsday and New York Daily News. They operate in a climate ravaged by cutbacks and consolidation. (There’s morbid irony when newspapers report on their own demise. Consider this headline in the Washington Post last June: “Every week, two more newspapers close — and ‘news deserts’ grow larger.”)

Lally points out that, “Downstream, local and regional newspapers used to monitor the weekly papers more closely. So, something that popped in a weekly would be picked up very quickly. They’re not monitoring to the same extent.”

Then there is the intangible element of “seeing is disbelieving.” George Santos may have conned his way to a seat in Congress, but not when he sat with Lally. “I met him three years ago. A mutual friend introduced us. He asked for my support [for Santos’s 2020 campaign against former Rep. Tom Suozzi]. I had an hour and half lunch with him, and I knew right from the start that nothing felt right. He was bragging, talking about his money, wallowing in the attention. He wasn’t serious.”

There were several interactions after that. “He was behaving bizarrely. I thought he was unprofessional and inappropriate. Then Covid hit so I didn’t see him or hear a thing for months.”

Lally says his own network of Republican campaign operatives conducted the early spade work on Santos. “We would hear things, get tips about Santos’s disclosures. They started tracking him and his fraudulent expenditures and receipts. People started calling him Scamtos.”

On election night, Santos stunned the political world by winning New York’s 3rd Congressional District. Only after it was too late was his mendacity exposed; and continues to be exposed almost daily. (The latest, reported by Newsday, involve allegations of shady payments to campaign vendors with opaque backgrounds.) Now, this conman, this grifter, this pathological liar gets paid a congressional salary to roost in a seat in the House of Representatives. My congressman is wanted in Brazil. He is a national laughingstock who represents a community that deserves more than a punchline.

It may not get a Pulitzer, but if there is an award for “I Told You So,” give it to the North Shore Leader.

Steve Israel represented New York in the U.S. House of Representatives over eight terms and was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now director of the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy Institute of Politics and Global Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael

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