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EDITORIAL: George Santos' lies underscore decline of American political culture

To sustain American democracy, we must bring accountabilty to elected officials

Rep. George Santos' (R-N.Y. 3) lies reveal major problems in the American political system that require urgent addressing. – Photo by @RJC / Twitter

By now, most of us have heard about Rep. George Santos' (R-N.Y. 3) many lies. Santos, a freshman Republican congressman from Long Island, New York, has lied about seemingly everything. While some of his deceptions might be reduced to mere resume boosters, such as where he attended college and where he worked during his early career, others are far more worrying.

Among the worst offenses — Santos falsely stated that he had Jewish ancestry affected by the Holocaust and that his mother died in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

These falsehoods are reprehensible for a number of reasons. When Santos lies about his ancestry, he minimizes the actual atrocities that took place. He reduces the Holocaust’s severity to something like a commodity, where he uses the tragedy to, it seems, make his own worth increase in the eyes of potential voters.

Likewise, when he claims that his mother was a victim of 9/11, he minimizes the gravity of the incident itself. Santos exploits the tragedy of 9/11 — the pain, suffering and loss that the incident represents to survivors and to the broader American culture — for his own personal gain.

For Santos, everything is about what best serves him and what he can use to propel him to the next level. Such fabrications have no place in American culture and certainly not in government. Yet, Santos has not been punished. Perhaps just as frustrating as the lies themselves is the fact that Santos has faced no serious repercussions.

While a handful of New York Republicans have called for his resignation, Santos was just awarded seats to two committees in the House of Representatives, which only underscores he is not an exception but rather a symptom of larger breakdowns in American political life. The fact that the House — one of the world’s most powerful legislative bodies — so openly supports a blatant liar like Santos without holding him accountable makes a mockery of our system of government.

Such a lack of accountability translates into voters’ distrust of elected officials. In 1958, nearly three-quarters of the American population said they trusted the government to do the right thing, according to Pew Research. In 2022, that number dropped to just 20 percent.

Some might wonder how citizens' trust in government eroded so significantly, and the answer may lie in the pressing, yet constantly overlooked, crisis of local journalism.

Small, community-oriented papers exist to bring local stories to larger attention, check up on the validity of their local representatives and make sure that everyday citizens’ concerns are heard. 

In recent years, though, local papers have begun to lose popularity and funding. Since the start of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, 360 newspapers have closed. This is an astonishing number that leaves communities vulnerable to fraudsters like Santos. 

Even the papers that remain are weakened as they are often understaffed and neglected. Indeed, the Santos story might have been avoided if local papers had stronger influence. The North Shore Leader, which caters to the Long Island area, first reported on Santos’ deceptions when they ran an article calling into question Santos’ reported finances.

That story ran in September 2022. But no one paid attention or explored the situation further, and George Santos won the election. 

It was not until December when The New York Times reported on the story, and the scope of Santos’ lies was actually unfolded. But this happened after Santos had already won the election — it was too late. 

If the Santos story proves anything, it is that local journalism matters and that we all need to do better at uplifting local journalists. If the North Shore Leader’s article had been picked up, Santos might not have won. 

Local journalism outlets that focus on communities serve as a crucial guardrail of American democracy. They complete thorough and proper checks on anyone running for office. Most importantly, they create accountability. As this safety net for our national democracy weakens, we must commit to supporting and uplifting local journalism.

Give local papers your time. Read the articles. Organizations such as The Lenfest Institute and American Journalism Project were designed to empower the work of local journalists in an effort to strengthen democracy and protect communities. 

Each of us has a duty to protect and ensure the survival of our democracy. Even if our faith has wavered, we can refocus our attention on our local newsrooms and gradually rebuild our trust lost in the national government. 

The Daily Targum's editorials represent the views of the majority of the 154th editorial board. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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