It turns out that a former Der Spiegel star and a one-time CNN Journalist of the Year didn’t just make up stories about small-town America, and didn’t do it just for the laughs. The magazine announced yesterday that it would file a criminal complaint against Claas Relotius, not for making up stories out of whole cloth but for embezzling funds he raised for orphaned Syrian children:
Influential German news weekly Der Spiegel said Sunday it would file a criminal complaint against a disgraced reporter after it emerged he may have embezzled donations intended for Syrian street children.
Claas Relotius, 33, resigned this month after admitting to making up stories and inventing protagonists in more than a dozen articles in the magazine’s print and online editions.
Spiegel said it now had information that Relotius allegedly launched a campaign for readers to give money to help subjects of an article he wrote but that the bank details he gave directed the funds to his own account.
“Der Spiegel will give all the information it collects to public prosecutors as part of a criminal complaint,” it said on its website.
The German weekly announced that it had not known of Relotius’ charity project, and they have no idea how much he might have raised from it. They’re pretty sure it’s based on yet another series of lies, however:
A Turkish photographer who worked with Relotius has since claimed that the article has major inaccuracies, and Der Spiegel said Relotius apparently invented the two young siblings who featured prominently in it.
He later wrote about trying to help the children get adopted by a German family, which Der Spiegel also said appeared to be a lie.
That puts a distinct spin on this eruption of major-media fabulism. Most cases involve perpetrators who seek self-aggrandizement through manipulation. The classic case is Stephen Glass, a serial fabulist at The New Republic who manufactured most of the material he submitted while charming his way past editors and fact-checkers. The film Shattered Glass (which this article’s headline references) gives an excellent look into that scandal and Glass’ sociopathic manipulations.
Relotius may show us a new model for media fabulism in the crowdfunding age. Not that we haven’t already seen scams for social-media stories; the Johnny Bobbitt scam showed just how fertile that field is, and how tough it might be to catch. That one only fell apart because the principals got too greedy and started to shaft each other. Imagine how lucrative this might be when those who want to check out the veracity of a charity effort go to an established magazine like Der Spiegel and source material from a reporter who won awards from CNN and other outlets. Had Relotius just stuck to one cooked article, he might still be suckering well-meaning donors.
This only works, of course, if the media outlets do as bad a job at fact-checking as Der Spiegel apparently does. How did Relotius manage to escape detection for so long? Like Glass, he chose his targets well, taking aim at the US, Trump, and other betes noires of the European left. US Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell argued that Der Spiegel’s anti-American bias blinded them to obvious fabulism, which the magazine denies:
The editors of Der Spiegel, the country’s most important newsmagazine, who have been dealing with the fallout of the affair and the reputational damage to its vaunted fact-checking department, have apologized to Americans who felt insulted about the former reporter’s fraud. But they pushed back on the ambassador’s criticism.
“When we criticize the American president, this does not amount to anti-American bias — it is criticism of the policies of the man currently in office in the White House,” Dirk Kurbjuweit, the deputy editor in chief, wrote in an open letter to the ambassador.
Grenell put together a string of images from the magazine’s front covers as a rebuttal:
— Richard Grenell (@RichardGrenell) December 21, 2018
The burden of proof in this instance lies with the magazine. If anti-American bias doesn’t explain why a magazine like Der Spiegel couldn’t tell when their star reporter was literally making up stuff, what does? The magazine’s latest issue is dedicated to fact-checking Relotius’ previous work, which is commendable but prompts an obvious question. Why didn’t they fact-check this work before its publication? As with most fabulists — Stephen Glass included — it’s likely because he was telling them what they wanted to hear and already believed. That’s what fabulists do, and why they get away with it. And that’s why editorial bias is almost certainly the correct answer to that question.
Addendum: In case this sounds too gloomy, let me offer a cheery closing thought. The Glass scandal at The New Republic got exposed twenty years ago because a competing publication got its toes stepped on by his “reporting.” (The same thing happened to Rolling Stone a couple of years ago, for that matter.) These days, the people insulted by fabulists like Relotius can organize to expose it themselves — which is exactly what the populace of Fergus Falls, Minnesota did. That’s the power of the Internet and its instant feedback loop for media outlets. That’s why we must stay vigilant about media bias and bad reporting … or worse.