How an award-winning Der Spiegel reporter invented a story mocking small-town America

Claas Relotius is a German journalist who just this year won a Reporter of the Year award in his home country. But today, Der Spiegel, the magazine where Relotius has worked for the past seven years, announced that he had admitted to more than a dozen instances of fraud after being confronted by another reporter. From the Guardian:

Earlier this month, he won Germany’s Reporterpreis (Reporter of the Year) for his story about a young Syrian boy, which the jurors praised for its “lightness, poetry and relevance”. It has since emerged that all the sources for his reportage were at best hazy, and much of what he wrote was made up.

The falsification came to light after a colleague who worked with him on a story along the US-Mexican border raised suspicions about some of the details in Relotius’s reporting, having harboured doubts about him for some time.

The colleague, Juan Moreno, eventually tracked down two alleged sources quoted extensively by Relotius in the article, which was published in November. Both said they had never met Relotius. Relotius had also lied about seeing a hand-painted sign that read “Mexicans keep out”, a subsequent investigation found.

Other fraudulent stories included one about a Yemeni prisoner in Guantanamo Bay, and one about the American football star Colin Kaepernick.

One story Relotius wrote last year was about a small town in Minnesota called Fergus Falls. If you’re guessing that this was a Gorillas In the Mist style feature designed to make middle-America look bad, you are exactly correct. Michele Anderson, who lives in Fergus Falls, remembers meeting Relotius last February when he came to live in the area for three weeks to supposedly get a clear view of small-town America. She was immediately skeptical about his motives:

I know I’m not the only rural advocate and citizen that is wary about the anthropological gaze on rural America in the wake of the 2016 elections, and has struggled with how or whether to respond to the sudden attention and questions, when before we really didn’t matter to mass media at all.

Suddenly we do matter, but only because everyone wants to be the hero pundit that cracks the code of the current rural psyche. There are only two things those writers seem to have concluded or are able to pitch to their editors — we are either backwards, living in the past and have our heads up our asses, or we’re like dumb, endearing animals that just need a little attention in order to keep us from eating the rest of the world alive.

When Der Spiegel finally published his 7,000 word story on Fergus Falls, Michele Anderson found her own town unrecognizable. She and a friend were so skeptical of so many details that they set out to catalogue the errors in the piece and worked on doing so for nearly a year. Today, after word broke that Relotius had been fired, Anderson published a list of the top 11 errors in his piece on Medium. Here’s a sample which gives you an idea of the kind of America-bashing garbage this guy was serving up to his German readers. The bold below is what Relotius wrote and what follows is the fact-check of his statements:

“Andrew Bremseth would like to marry soon, he says, but he was never together with a woman. He has also never seen the ocean.”

Relotius chose to put the spotlight on Fergus Falls city administrator, Andrew Bremseth, as the main character in his article. We have spoken to Bremseth at length regarding the parts of the story that feature him, and Relotius got three facts right:

Bremseth’s age (27)
That he grew up in Fergus Falls
That he went to university in South Dakota
Everything else, from the claim that Bremseth carries a Beretta 9mm on his person while at work (“I would never ever wear a gun to work, and I don’t even own a Beretta.”), his disdain for a potential female president, his comment that Trump would “kick ass” (“Never said that”), and even his college-era preference for 18th century French philosophers (“Never read them”) and the New England Patriots (“I’m not a fan of them at all”), is complete fiction. Says Bremseth, “Anyone who knows anything about me, this [portrayal] is the furthest from what I stand for.”

Perhaps the oddest fiction in a list of many is Relotius’ depiction of Bremseth as someone who “would like to marry soon…but he has not yet been in a serious relationship with a woman. He has also never been to the ocean.”

We can attest that Bremseth has indeed been to the ocean, by his account, “many times” and is currently happily involved in a multi-year, cohabitational relationship with a woman named Amber. In fact, here’s a picture of the two of them in front of, all things, an ocean.

I won’t copy the photo but you can click over. It’s there. He has his hands on the woman and they are standing on a beach together. Here’s another example:

“There is also a cinema outside of town, where fast food stores are lit up. In this cinema, a flat, rectangular building, there are two films on a Friday evening. The one, “La La Land”, running in empty rows, is a musical, a romance about artists in Los Angeles. The other, “American Sniper”, a war film by Clint Eastwood, is sold out. The film is actually already two years old, almost 40 million Americans have seen it, but it still runs in Fergus Falls.”

This anecdote that supported Relotius’ exaggerated story of an immigrant-fearing, gun obsessed small town one was the easiest to fact check and yet the strangest, most random lie for him to craft. American Sniper definitely has not played in Fergus Falls since its first and only run in 2015. To be sure, we even reached out to Isaac Wunderlich, the manager of Westridge Theatre.

And sure enough, they reproduce a message from the theater manager who says American Sniper hasn’t played there since Feb. 2015, two years before Relotius visited. The films that were actually showing at the time he visited were: Lego Batman, Fifty Shades Darker, La La Land, Split, Dog’s Purpose, Hidden Figures, and Rings. But those films wouldn’t serve to paint Americans as a bunch of culturally insulated gun nuts.

I can only imagine what he invented for his piece on Colin Kaepernick.

Der Spiegel says it is now investigating his past work in detail. At least 14 of the 70 in-depth articles he wrote for the magazine contain falsehoods but it’s entirely possible many of the others do as well. The plan is to leave the original archived articles in place but to provide notices with the articles referring to specific falsehoods. So over the next few weeks or months there should be some spectacular corrections published at Der Spiegel.

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