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Op-ed

Peter Jensen: US politics needs a better class of liars | COMMENTARY

George Santos speaks at an annual leadership meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition on Nov. 19, 2022, in Las Vegas. His election may have helped Republicans secure their razor-thin House majority, but he's now under investigation for having lied about his heritage, education and professional pedigree as he campaigned for office. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

Like many Americans I was shocked at the recent revelations involving George “The Talented Mr. Ripley” Santos, the 34-year-old Republican who was elected to represent New York’s 3rd Congressional District extending from northeast Queens to Long Island. To call Santos a liar is akin to calling water wet. There is hardly anything about which he did not lie, from his ancestry to his occupation to his property ownership to his resume. And yet here he landed, the one-time self-described “proud American Jew” who isn’t Jewish (he now says he meant he was “Jew-ish”), as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, despite all kinds of belated promises of investigations by various authorities.

Let me be clear: The character bar in U.S. politics was never especially high, but George Santos not only fell well below it, he’s made it seem like an impossible height that may never be reached again. We can now reminisce fondly about the days when politicians lied by omission or exaggeration or spin or word parsing (”It depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is,” as a certain president once told a federal grand jury). At least there was a level of semi-respect for those being lied to. They must have assumed there would be adverse consequences for treating the public as complete idiots and chumps. How charming. How old-fashioned. How 20th century.

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How did Santos get away with it? He certainly had the benefit of running as a Republican in a midterm election in an affluent district with a sitting Democratic president faring poorly in the polls. A lot of outside money was spent. But it’s also clear that the ground has fundamentally shifted on political prevarication. Imagine if someone had told you pre-Donald Trump that one day the nation would elect a complete fraud and hustler as president? Further, that while in the White House, the “alternative reality” spewed from him and his inner circle of fabulists would be so obvious that the question wouldn’t be whether to impeach him but how often to do so? Or that he would go on to not only deny the results of an election but instigate an attack of the U.S. Capitol to overturn the results? And then — and, oh boy, here’s the real topper — what if I were to tell you that a substantial percentage of GOP voters still want him to be elected president (or, in their minds, re-reelected) in 2024?

Oh, the “you” of 2015 or earlier would probably say I was crazy. And yet here we are.

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Now, normally this is where the idealistic writer would offer a word of comfort, perhaps pointing out that not everyone behaves like George Santos or Donald Trump. He might observe that the world has always had its share of the irredeemable in leadership like Joffrey Baratheon, Alma Coin and Sen. Clay Davis. And if you did not recognize those names as completely made-up characters (from “Game of Thrones,” “The Hunger Games” and “The Wire,” respectively), you might even be comforted by that thought. But this ain’t one of those columns. Despair, all ye who read these words, and resign thyself to doom.

Why? Because the rise in the dishonesty of politicians coincides with the diminishment of the press. While many of you were busy enjoying the conveniences of the “Information Age” with its internet access, social media alerts and texting at our fingertips, you might not have noticed that the number of actual journalists — the folks who cover city halls and town councils and, yes, congressional campaigns — has greatly diminished. As much as we would applaud The North Shore Leader, the weekly that raised doubts about Santos’ veracity as early as September, the most intensive journalistic scrutiny has been post-election. And this was in New York, the nation’s media capital.

The future looks even worse. At least one-quarter of U.S. newspapers have closed since 2005 as advertising revenue has dipped and paid circulation has dropped. The percentage of newspapers shuttered is expected to reach one-third by 2025. Think the work of this shrinking pool of print reporters, who perform the nitty-gritty of fact-checking, investigating and questioning, has been assumed by bloggers or TikTokers or social media influencers or even cable TV hosts? Not quite. You will find plenty who will lambaste the topic-of-the-day on a Fox News panel. Good luck finding reporters capable of uncovering the truth without benefit of a Google News alert. And that makes George Santos not just a chronic liar but something of a role model. The chance to gain fame, fortune and power through easy deception beckons a new generation of schemers unencumbered by the facts.

Peter Jensen is an editorial writer at The Sun; he can be reached at pejensen@baltsun.com.


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