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George Santos, a web of lies and the rise of news deserts

Man newspaper reading on table
As the 118th Congress convenes for a new session, one story has drawn particular public intrigue and outcry: the election of a relatively unknown GOP candidate in New York’s 3rd Congressional District. Earlier this December, The New York Times published a lengthy expose revealing that Congressman-elect George Santos had significantly embellished his political and personal biography. Some of the more outlandish findings include the candidate claiming to have received a degree from Baruch College, to have worked with CitiGroup and Goldman Sachs and to be of Jewish descent. All of these claims proved to be false. While the legal implications of Santos’ lies are still evolving, this case illustrates the decline of a vital American institution: local media. To many constituents, the Santos allegations seemed to come out of nowhere. But, the story was actually broken months earlier by a small local paper, The North Shore Leader. In an environment where most voters have adjusted to receiving daily news from national publications and social media, this hyper-local story barely registered. To understand how we got here, we must examine the state of local news in 2023. Think of this, a news desert. This term may sound strange and dystopian, but for roughly one-fifth of Americans, this represents a dire reality. Approximately 70 million Americans live in a community that lacks a local paper or is at risk of losing one. As news increasingly migrates to the internet, traditional print media has struggled to adapt. After all, print media rely on advertisements to cover their overhead costs for staff and production. With most people opting for free, online sources to gather their news, local dailies are losing advertising dollars and struggling to make up for the lost revenue. From 2000 to 2018, daily newspaper circulation fell to half its original rate. Between 2008 and 2019, newsroom employment dropped by 51 percent, representing 30,000 less reporters. In the last 19 years, 1,800 local newspapers have shuttered for good. For democracy, this decline portends stark implications. In a 2018 study by the Brookings Institute, researchers found that government borrowing increased between five and eleven percent when politicians were allowed to operate unchecked by local journalists. Another report by the University of Chicago links steep declines in voter participation rates to communities where congressional representatives were not covered by the local press. As Long Island voters, journalists and pundits alike wonder how such an obviously flawed candidate could win election to the nation’s Congress, they should look no further than their shuttered local papers. In an environment where voters go to social media for daily news and national outlets for local updates, the North Shore Leader’s story was totally overlooked. As a result, the Santos story was missed and the voters of New York’s 3rd Congressional District elected a con man.
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