Thursday, December 20, 2018

German reporter fired after fabricating parts of dozens of stories, including one about a small town in Minnesota

Rural America has been under the news media's microscope since the 2016 election; sometimes that's resulted in insightful, fair-minded write-ups, sometimes not. So it's little wonder rural residents are suspicious when outsider journalists come to town.

"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," Fergus Falls, Minnesota, artists Michele Anderson and Jake Krohn write on the blogging platform Medium.

Wikipedia map shows Fergus Falls in Otter Tail County
So Anderson, Krohn, and neighbors were wary when Claas Relotius, a reporter for the German magazine Der Spiegel, came to Fergus Falls for a few weeks in February 2017 for a story about the town of 13,500. Anderson knew he was after a story about why most in town voted for Donald Trump, but says in the blog item's introduction that she "still had an ounce of faith in journalism. Maybe, just maybe, since he was a professional, award-winning, international journalist and was spending not one day here but several weeks, he would craft an interesting, nuanced story about how we all somehow manage to coexist with each other in Trump’s America without burning each other’s houses down."

That's not what happened. The finished piece, headlined "Where They Pray for Trump on Sundays" was "an insulting, if not hilarious, excuse for journalism," Anderson writes. "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."

The 7,300-word article got only a few basics right, Anderson writes, calling the rest "uninhibited fiction" so sloppy that it "begs the question of why Der Spiegel even invested in Relotius’ three-week trip to the U.S., whether they should demand their money back from him, and what kind of institutional breakdown led to the supposedly world-class Der Spiegel fact-checking team completely dropping the ball on this one."

Anderson was so incensed that she and Krohn wrote in the blog item the top 11 "stupidest lies" from Relotius' article. We at The Rural Blog would love to say that this immolation of Relotius' work is what caused Der Spiegel to fire him, but it appears that Fergus Falls wasn't his only victim: Der Spiegel revealed yesterday that Relotius was sacked after his editors discovered he had "falsified articles on a grand scale and even invented characters."

Anderson laments that Relotius not only lied about Fergus Falls, but spent three weeks there and missed the opportunity to explore the complicated issues that would have been fertile ground for an article. She tried to speak to Relotius at a public meeting, but says he ignored her 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."

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