When an out-of-town journalist showed up in Fergus Falls, Minn., in February 2017, Michele Anderson couldn’t help but feel skeptical. Claas Relotius had been telling residents that he was writing about the state of rural America under President Trump. Anderson, a community arts administrator with progressive political views, was uncomfortable with “the anthropological gaze” that had been cast on communities like her own after the 2016 election. Hopefully, she would later recall thinking, an award-winning international journalist would at least manage to capture more nuance than the pundits had in the months following the election.
As it turned out, the piece that appeared in the respected German weekly magazine Der Spiegel a month later was even worse than she could have imagined. Not only did it rely on stock stereotypes of provincial, gun-toting conservatives, but many of the details were blatantly false.
Relotius wrote that city administrator Andrew Bremseth had never been with a woman and had never been to the ocean, claims that were easily debunked by a photo on Bremseth’s Facebook page that showed him standing next to the ocean with his long-term girlfriend. Relotius mentioned looking through the windows of a local diner and seeing a power plant billowing out steam, which would have been impossible since the plant in question is hidden behind a tall hill more than two miles away. And he described a sign at the entrance to town that said, “Mexicans Keep Out” — something that community members didn’t recall ever seeing.
On Wednesday, they were vindicated. Der Spiegel announced that Relotius had “falsified his articles on a grand scale” since at least 2016 and had resigned after admitting that he had fabricated quotes and invented fictional details in more than a dozen stories, including his dispatch from Fergus Falls. The magazine’s investigation found that the 33-year-old writer had faked interviews with the parents of Colin Kaepernick and falsified material that appeared in award-winning features about children kidnapped by the Islamic State and a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay. Before it all came crashing down, he had also managed to convince editors that a co-worker who expressed suspicions was the real liar.
For more than a year, Anderson and Jake Krohn, a fellow artist in Fergus Falls, had been working on an investigation of their own, revisiting the people whom Relotius had interviewed and fact-checking the claims that he had made in his piece. On Wednesday, they published the results on Medium, titling the post, “Der Spiegel journalist messed with the wrong small town.”
“In 7,300 words he really only got our town’s population and average annual temperature correct,” Anderson wrote, noting that the piece had contained so many outright fictions that she and Krohn had decided to highlight the 11 most absurd lies.
Among them: Relotius had claimed that the local movie theater was still playing “American Sniper” more than two years after it came out, which was quickly disproved with an email to the theater’s manager. He described traveling into town on a “narrow, sloping street, rolling towards a dark forest that looks like dragons live in it,” even though Fergus Falls is located on the prairie and there are no forests within city limits. In another passage, he wrote that local high school students on a bus trip to New York had skipped the Statue of Liberty in favor of visiting Trump Tower. But Anderson and Krohn found no evidence that the trip had taken place.
Most alarmingly, Relotius appeared to have used real people’s names and identities, then invented details about their lives. He told the story of Maria Rodriguez, the owner of a local Mexican restaurant who had become a Trump supporter after the Affordable Care Act made it more expensive to treat her kidney disease. The real Maria Rodriguez turned out to be a waitress at the restaurant. She had never had kidney disease and was never interviewed by Relotius, she said. Similarly, her son — described in the piece as a 15-year-old named Israel, but in actuality a college sophomore named Pablo — told Krohn and Anderson that the story that Relotius had weaved about his life in Fergus Falls and the prejudice he had encountered at the local high school was completely false.
Many of the made-up details reflected certain prevailing stereotypes about rural America. Bremseth, the city administrator, wore a gun to work, disparaged the idea of a female president and was the only person in the city who subscribed to national publications, Relotius wrote. But according to Krohn and Anderson’s thorough takedown, none of it was true.
“Not only did Relotius’ 'exposé’ on Fergus Falls make unrecognizable movie-like characters out of the people in my town that I interact with on a daily basis, but its very basic lack of truth and its bizarrely bleak portrayal of the place I love left a very sick, unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach,” Anderson wrote. “There’s really nothing like this feeling — knowing that people in another country have read about the place I call home and are shaking their heads over their coffee in disgust, sharing the article on Facebook and Twitter, and making comments on the online article like ‘creepy,’ and ‘these are the people who don’t believe electricity exists.’”
After joining Der Spiegel as a freelancer in 2014, Relotius became one of Germany’s most respected writers, receiving numerous awards, including CNN’s “Journalist of the Year,” the European Press Prize and, on four separate occasions, the German Reporter Prize. But cracks started to show when he collaborated with another journalist, Juan Moreno, for a piece about an Arizona border militia that was published in November. Suspecting that Relotius hadn’t spoken to the people who appeared in the story, Moreno ended up using his own money to travel to the Arizona desert, where he learned that Relotius had not only never met his subjects but also altered key details about them, including their names.
What motivated Relotius to lie? “It was the fear of failure,” he reportedly told editors at Der Spiegel, confessing that the pressure had grown as his career took off. After the 2016 election, his editors suggested that he write about Trump voters in rural America, and made plans for him to rent an apartment in Fergus Falls. But once he got there, the article failed to come together, Der Spiegel editor Ullrich Fichtner wrote:
When asked about the Fergus Falls story, he admitted that he knew perfectly well that the editors wouldn’t have reprimanded him if he had dropped the whole thing. “I think,” Relotius said last week, “a normal person would have said: ‘Listen, this just isn’t working. I’m stuck and we can’t do the story.’” But Relotius is evidently no normal person. “I tend to want to have control,” he said, “and I have this compulsion, this drive, to somehow make it happen. Of course, you don’t make it happen. You make a fabrication.” When he says “you” here, he can only mean himself and no one else.
According to Anderson, however, there was a story to be found in Fergus Falls. It just may not have been the one that Relotius was looking for. What he had overlooked, she wrote on Wednesday, were the community programs supporting local artists, the excellent coffee shop, and all of the residents who traveled to Washington for the Women’s March, planted Black Lives Matter signs in their yards and wept when they realized that Trump had been elected.
“This is just a hunch, but it seems to me that Relotius’ overseas readers might appreciate knowing that small American towns are more complex than they imagine — that die-hard liberals like me can still magically live alongside conservative Republicans — that sometimes we even find some common ground and share a meal together, and take the time to try to understand each other’s viewpoints,” she wrote.
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