Große Momente im Journalismus 2018

Charles Lane:

Nearly 30 years ago, the Cold War’s end opened Germany’s border to the formerly Soviet-dominated east. Asylum seekers from poor and war-torn nations poured across it. A violent backlash from ultra-right-wing Germans ensued.

“Refugees carry stones, sticks — even mace — for protection, walk in groups by day and rarely leave home at night,” USA Today’s roving correspondent Jack Kelley reported on Nov. 23, 1992. Fortunately, Kelley wrote, decent Germans “hide refugees and Jews in their homes to protect them.”

Based in Berlin at the time, I felt mystified, and a bit incompetent: Why had skinheads admitted possessing illegal guns and grenades — another stunning, exclusive detail in his story — to Kelley, but not to German or Germany-based U.S. reporters? And good Germans were hiding Jews, but we hadn’t even heard rumors of it?

Not until 2004, two years after Kelley had been honored as a Pulitzer Prize finalist, did USA Today figure out he had been fabricating and plagiarizing since 1991.

I review this history as context for the new journalistic scandal involving fabrications by a star correspondent for Germany’s renowned Der Spiegel magazine.

The Kelley scandal, like the 2003 revelation of Jayson Blair’s frauds at the New York Times, disproved my belief that Stephen Glass’s fakes at the New Republic (in the 1990s, when I was the magazine’s editor) might be the last. Surely computer-aided fact-checking would deter fraud, I thought.

Bridging the gap: Journalists, experts discuss rebuilding trust in media
Journalists and media experts explore the erosion of trust in the media and what steps the press can take to reverse the trend. (Washington Post Live)

However, the unmasking of Der Spiegel’s erstwhile ace, Claas Relotius, as a phony on Dec. 20, mere days after he collected his fourth German Reporter Prize, shows yet again that my hope was naive. Reporters keep inventing stories and getting prizes for them.

What’s going on? Fact-checking and other procedural matters are relevant but not fundamental. A great German philosopher got closer to the point when he wrote: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”

That includes journalism. Reporters and editors are as susceptible to motivated reasoning and confirmation bias as readers are, though we say, and believe, that professional norms and training equip us to resist distorting influences.

Yet the power of stereotype remains. When Kelley told his 1992 tale, he tapped into widely held American fears, rooted in World War II, that Nazi tendencies lurked just below the surface of newly reunified and democratic Germany.

Similarly, while many German journalists report honestly from this country, going to great lengths to travel and meet ordinary people, the gun-toting, death-penalty-seeking, racist American nonetheless remains a stock character of much superficial coverage, particularly in left-leaning outlets such as Hamburg-based Der Spiegel.

Ugly Americans, and American ugliness, crop up repeatedly in Relotius’s articles. He made up a story about an oft-tortured Yemeni released from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, and another about a Joplin, Mo., woman who travels the country just to witness executions.

And on the outskirts of rural Fergus Falls, Minn., a majority of whose voters backed President Trump in 2016, Relotius purportedly found a large sign — “almost impossible to overlook,” he wrote — reading “Mexicans Keep Out.”

The fact that no one in the U.S. press or social media had previously spotted the sign apparently did not prompt so much as a follow-up call to Fergus Falls by Der Spiegel’s editors.

They believed what they found believable. Their credulousness was rooted partly in truth — xenophobia, gun violence and the rest are real problems in the United States, just as anti-foreigner violence was, and is, in Germany.

But it also reflected bias: Contempt for American culture has a long history among the continental European cognoscenti, the sort of people who read Der Spiegel and write for it.

Negative caricatures of the United States have taken hold in broader German public opinion, too, especially since a stereotypical Ugly American, Donald Trump, reached the White House — but well before that, too.

The United States’ favorability rating is lower in Germany than in any other large European democracy, and has been since the latter half of the Obama administration, according to data compiled by the Pew Research Center.

It was under President Barack Obama, after all, that Der Spiegel called the U.S. Embassy in Berlin “a nest of espionage.”

Germany today finds itself in a galling situation: It depends, for both military protection and export markets, on a country — the United States — that many Germans, including influential figures in academia, the media, business and politics, regard with ambivalence bordering on disdain.

Der Spiegel’s contribution to mutual understanding was to publish Claas Relotius, even though the magazine’s deputy editor in chief described anti-Americanism as “deeply alien to me” in his published response to a letter of complaint about Relotius from the U.S. ambassador in Berlin.

The editor was undoubtedly sincere. Still, you have to wonder why Relotius didn’t fabricate stories for Der Spiegel about, say, growing U.S. acceptance of racial and ethnic diversity, or a successful prison rehabilitation program. Maybe he worried the fact-checkers wouldn’t believe him.

A Fergus Falls resident wrote about Der Spiegel:

There are so many lies here, that my friend Jake and I had to narrow them down to top 11 most absurd lies (we couldn’t do just 10) for the purpose of this article. We’ve been working on it since the article came out in spring of 2017, but had to set it aside to attend to our lives (raising a family, managing a nonprofit organization, etc.) before coming back to it this fall, and finally wrapped things up a few weeks ago, just in time to hear today that Relotius was fired when he was exposed for fabricating many of his articles.

We hope that our version of this story makes you think twice the next time you read an article claiming some kind of intellectual authority over rural identity, and that you’ll come and see for yourself what Fergus Falls is all about (we don’t mind a little tourism boost every now and then — although we’re doing pretty well attracting artists from all around the nation, among other things).

1. The Sleeping Dragon

“After three and a half hours, the bus bends from the highway to a narrow, sloping street, rolling towards a dark forest that looks like dragons live in it. At the entrance, just before the station, there is a sign with the American stars and stripes banner, which reads: “Welcome to Fergus Falls, home of damn good folks.”

Fergus Falls is located on the prairie — which means our landscape mostly consists of tall grass and lakes. While we have trees, we do not have any distinct forests in our city limits, and definitely not in the route that the bus Relotius would have taken from the Twin Cities. And sadly, our welcome sign is quite mundane in its greeting.

2. The gun-toting, virgin City Administrator

“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.

Relotius also decided he could get away with telling his readers that Bremseth is the only Fergus Falls resident that subscribes to national publications, painting the community as the perfect villain around which to frame the rest of his horror story about rural America.

3. The town obsessed with American Sniper

“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.

4. Neil, the coal plant employee that doesn’t exist

“There is nothing on the cap of Neil Becker. Becker, a man with strong shoulders, blond hair and big, clear eyes, asks, “Have you lost your mind?” Neil Becker is 57 years old, married, a man with a deep voice and a face in which seldom find any questions. He is not a farmer, he works next door in the coal-fired power plant, his hands are always black.

The man Relotius describes has an accompanying photo in the Der Spiegel article, and we all know that guy. It’s the one and only Doug Becker, who works for UPS and ran the Fergus Falls Fitness Center for years, which is possibly the only place in Minnesota where you could listen to a vintage record collection while lifting weights. While we have not yet been able to sit down with Doug to discuss his conversations with Relotius, we know enough about him (it’s a small town after all) to make his depiction seem very suspect.

5. The mixed-up case of Israel and Maria

“Maria Rodriguez, a mother and local restaurant owner from Mexico, who came to the USA years ago, also saw Trump as a savior.”

One of the most exploitative aspects of Relotius’ story was his depiction of the employees at Don Pablo’s, a much-beloved Mexican restaurant in the heart of downtown. Relotius weaves together the story of Maria, restaurateur turned Trump supporter whose treatment for kidney disease becomes increasingly expensive under Obamacare, and that of her 15-year old son Israel, who faces prejudice at the hands of his Fergus Falls classmates. It’s riveting stuff, but, as is par for the course, an utter lie.

This was confirmed through a lengthy conversation we had with Maria’s son, Pablo Rodriguez, dubbed Israel, in Relotius’ story. “None of that story is true,” said Rodriguez. In fact, he had never talked to Relotius at all. His only interaction with the journalist was when he was stopped and asked to pose for a picture outside of the restaurant, which later appeared in the article.

In Relotius’ telling, “Israel” was a 15-year-old high school student, when in reality Pablo was in his second year of college. There is an Israel in the Don Pablo’s universe, a waiter in his late 20’s, who likely served Relotius a meal and lended his name to this fictional character, but little else.

Maria Rodriguez, as pictured in the story, is indeed Maria Rodriguez in real life, but that is where the truth ends. She does not own the restaurant (she is a waitress there; her sister-in-law Teresa is the owner), has never suffered from kidney disease, and, most tellingly, never even sat for an interview with Relotius. Says Rodriguez, “He just wanted to take a picture of me. He never talked to me about anything.”

6. The view from the Viking Cafe

“You can see the power plant where he works when you look out the window of the Diner, six tall, gray towers, from which rise white steam clouds.”

The Viking Cafe is Fergus Falls’ most treasured downtown establishment — over 60 years old. One of the reasons we Minnesotans all like it so much is that it has a cozy, underground feeling. Why? Because there are literally NO WINDOWS in the interior of this restaurant. Sure, you can see a little bit out the small front windows, but nothing beyond the shops across the street. The power plant Relotius refers to is almost 2 miles away on the northeast edge of town, blocked from view by a neighborhood on a large hill, and sports a single smokestack. Relotius’ imaginings are dramatic for the movie version of Trump’s America someday, but is it accurate and true? Not in the least.

7. Library lies

“In the library, which used to be a kindergarten, pensioners meet for knitting. A couple of buildings away, in the town hall, City Administrator Andrew Bremseth, who believes in breaking away, is leading a seminar called ‘iPad for Beginners,’ four locals are participating. He also organizes a TV series quiz night once a month, his favorite series is called ‘Game of Thrones.’

One of our writers, Jake, is married to the Fergus Falls Public Library’s youth librarian, so we feel this is a great place to quote him. “No,” he says, “the building was built in 1986 and has only functioned as a library.”

There has never been an iPad for Beginners class at City Hall. Classes like that are the library’s domain and taught by one of the librarians there. And as to Bremseth’s “Game of Thrones” quiz night? As with everything else related to our city administrator, a complete lie. Says a laughing Bremseth, “I don’t have cable, I’ve never seen Game of Thrones, and I don’t even know what it’s about.” Never seen Game of Thrones? In this case, truth is (just about) stranger than fiction.

8. High School security

“Anyone who enters it must pass through a security line, through three armored glass doors, and a weapon scanner.”

Although we haven’t tested the strength of the doors fronting our high school, we are quite sure that “armored” is an exaggeration, and there are two, not three, sets of doors; their real purpose is to keep the cold January air out of the school more than automatic weapons. That is not to say our grounds are not secure — all doors are locked during the school day and visitors must pass through the school office to receive a visitor’s pass before entering. While this picture of a hardened school is undoubtedly true elsewhere in the U.S., it’s simply not the case in Fergus Falls.

9. Secret Super Bowl viewing at the Brewery?

“The pub around him is crowded with men, hanging from the ceiling garlands, the Super Bowl is on TV, and Andrew Bremseth is sitting on a stool, in front of him is a dark beer, he likes it warm in the winter.”

The Super Bowl was on Sunday, February 5th. Union Pizza wasn’t open on Sundays at that time. Therefore, Bremseth and Relotius definitely couldn’t have watched the Super Bowl there and talked politics. To confirm this, we talked briefly to our Mayor, the owner of Union Pizza, just to make sure he didn’t have some kind of private Super Bowl party. “Was the restaurant open for the Super Bowl? Did you have it open just for friends and family?” His response to both queries: “No…?”

Bremseth confirmed this, saying, “I didn’t watch the Super Bowl at Union Pizza and I certainly wouldn’t have watched it with this guy. And I like my beer light and cold.”

10. The awesome “Western Evening”… that no one was invited to.

“That evening, Bremseth says the people of Fergus Falls love are big, extravagant festivals. It was last summer, he says, they were celebrating a Western evening here in this bar. They poured sand and straw on the porch, grilled marinated beef halves, and played a country band. All women, including Maria Rodriguez, danced in old-fashioned clothes, all the men, among them Neil Becker and his regular friends, wore hats or cowboy boots.”

We find this hilarious, if not a little inspiring for a future event idea, especially since all of the characters Relotius portrayed in this article just happened to show up at this “Western evening” in Fergus Falls. The nice thing about a small town is that none of us would have missed this, especially if our city administrator, the non-owner of our Mexican restaurant, and our non-existent power plant worker Neil knew about it and attended. Again, we confirmed with Mayor Schierer, just in case we were somehow too busy to miss this, or just not invited. “No western-themed parties here,” he said.

11. The High School New York Trip

“The bus reaches New York at midnight, the towers of Manhattan light up. The students move into a hostel on the outskirts of the city, only the next morning take the subway to Times Square. None of them ever went underground, and their parents have never been to New York. On their first day, they head through the streets, head hanging back to their necks. They spit from the Rockefeller Center and ride a boat across the Hudson River. They do not go to Liberty Island, the Statue of Liberty, but they visit the Trump Tower.”

We reached out to several sources on this one, and no one recalls a busload of high school students traveling to New York. We asked two high school students, an assistant principal, and a teacher who is tuned in to all the happenings at the school, and all cited an every-other-year band trip that goes to New York, but 2017 was an off year. We searched our local newspaper archives for mention of a trip by any of our 29 churches or a service clubs but came up short. We couldn’t find our fictional friend “Israel,” who went on the trip and we even reached out to our network of Facebook contacts to see if anyone recalled such a trip happening, but no one had. As with many other vignettes painted by Relotius, this one, too, appears to be complete fiction.

So, what did Relotius miss?

Being an outspoken advocate of rural issues and Fergus Falls, I tried to say “hi” to Relotius at a public meeting, only to be glanced at briefly and ignored because he was very preoccupied with taking a picture of an American flag at our city hall. Or maybe he just pretended not to hear me because I didn’t fit into his story.

Not only did he simply indulge in fabricating dramatic scenes and stories about Fergus Falls, but Relotius somehow spent three weeks here and managed to miss out on experiencing the real community and its many complex perspectives, which might have actually offered a helpful analyses about economic transition, politics and identity in rural America.

But as the phrase goes, other than that, the story was accurate. I guess it’s nice to know that crappy journalism doesn’t only exist in this country.

 

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