After Congressman George Santos’s Resume Unraveled, a Reporter Asks “Now What?”

From a Times Insider column by Emmett Linder headlined “After Santos’s Resume Unraveled, a Reporter Asks ‘Now What?'”

After Representative George Santos, Republican of New York, was elected to office in November, Grace Ashford and Michael Gold, two New York Times reporters, were given a seemingly straightforward assignment: write a deep-dive article about the new congressman.

But when the reporters tried to verify details of Mr. Santos’s campaign biography, they ended up with more questions than answers. “We started to get a sense that perhaps he might not always be telling the truth, and that gave us a different way of looking at him,” Ms. Ashford said. So, they kept digging — and what they found, Ms. Ashford said, “ended up blowing our minds.”

Weeks of research and interviews revealed that Mr. Santos had embellished his résumé in alarming ways. Baruch College, the school from which Mr. Santos said he graduated in 2010, was unable to find records of his graduation; companies he claimed to have worked for had no record of his employment. He was also facing criminal charges for check fraud in Brazil, The Times found.

In the weeks following the publication of the investigation, more revelations have come to light about the freshman congressman, who, amid calls to resign and multiple investigations, has stepped down from multiple House committee assignments. The Times has continued to cover the controversy; for example, an investigation this month of Mr. Santos’s campaign finances uncovered $365,000 in unexplained campaign spending. In an interview, Ms. Ashford and Mr. Gold discussed the aftermath of their reporting and how they shape follow-up coverage.

Were you surprised by the kind of attention the initial article received?

MICHAEL GOLD: This was a two-day assignment that turned into multiple months. I don’t think I fully understood the impact that this might have had. We spent that first week reeling from the fact that so many people were gravitating toward this story. When you’re working in isolation for as long as we were working, you had no idea what would happen. We reached out to the Santos team leading up to publication, and their posture initially was the one that you usually get from spokespeople. It gradually became more aggressive, I would say, and defensive at the same time.

To have him that next week come out and say, as he put it, I did embellish my résumé,was an interesting moment. We stood by our reporting at that point, but we realized there was possibly more to the story.

GRACE ASHFORD: And then the question becomes: Now what? Now that this is not just a report in The New York Times that has been denied — this is something that’s been admitted. That also broadened the horizon of what the impact of the story might be.

When did you start thinking the initial investigation would need a wider focus?

ASHFORD: The decision to publish when we did was a difficult one. What we were really saying in that first story was, he’s not who he claims to be — and we don’t totally know who he is. But what we do know paints a very different portrait. That was part of the reason I think that this story garnered so much attention: It invited America to help figure out what was really going on under the surface.

GOLD: There were also things that we mentioned in that first story that became a bigger deal later on, like the pet charity. Then other reporting came out by Patch, originally, that suggested that there was much more about his involvement with pets. If you look back at that first story, there are a lot of things that maybe at the time felt like minor details that have become a major part of this.

How do you think about formulating coverage going forward?

GOLD: Since our first story ran, a lot of people who have known Santos have come out of the woodwork. That first week we were able to publish the story from friends, former co-workers and former neighbors who had spoken to us more about him and provided new avenues.

ASHFORD: We had to learn that the things that Representative Santos says about himself cannot be taken at face value. And they run the gamut from the very serious, like his claims of Jewish heritage and ties to the Holocaust, 9/11 and the Pulse shooting, to losing both of his knees to volleyball. There are a lot of things that can be distracting from the bigger thing that is actually at stake here, which is, frankly: What kind of representative can you be when you’re not able to stand in front of your constituents and have a conversation, when your own personal story is clouding the discourse? It’s been very important for Michael and I to maintain focus on those things.

Did this reporting make you a little more skeptical of public figures?

GOLD: I am definitely more skeptical. If I’m ever in a situation where I have to write about a candidate again, I’m not going to take their bio at face value. One of the interesting reporting challenges here is when you talk to friends or former friends, family or people who knew him back in the day, they’ll say, “George Santos told me this,” and we have to stop and say, “OK, did you believe that was true?” It’s layers of skepticism.

How do you divide up reporting?

ASHFORD: Sort of naturally; we have totally different things that we’re drawn to. We’ve been lucky to have a really good working dynamic. It’s always more fun to work with someone than it is to work alone. Especially on a story like this, it’s incredibly valuable to have someone to share the questions and revelations with.

GOLD: There are definitely things that we are pursuing separately, but there are a lot of things that we end up pursuing together. It’s flowed really naturally. We’re very happy to help each other on certain targets, and we’re lucky in that regard.

Emmett Lindner has covered international protests, worked on live briefings and asked the tough questions about frozen reindeer meat for The Times.

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