The German weekly Der Spiegel, one of the top-selling publications in Europe, is reeling from a scandal that revealed that a star reporter has reportedly faked stories for years.
Many of the faked stories written by Claas Relotius were centered in the United States or in the Middle East.
So far, Der Spiegel editors said Wednesday, they had found that Relotius “made up stories and invented protagonists” in at least 14 of the 60 stories examined so far. But they said the investigation is only beginning. The editors said they were “astounded and sad” by the discovery, which they called “a low point in Der Spiegel’s 70-year history.”
And so far none of the other outlets that ran Relotius’ work over the years have checked in. He had freelanced for Der Spiegel for years before joining full-time a year ago.
The German journalists’ union said it was the biggest fraud scandal in journalism since the “Hitler diaries” published by Stern magazine in Germany and Newsweek in the US in 1983.
It was reminiscent of past scandals in the US including the Jayson Blair snafu at the New York Times, the Stephen Glass scandal at the New Republic and the revoked Pulitzer Prize won by Janet Cooke at the Washington Post.
In one article that came under intense scrutiny, Relotius spent three weeks living in Fergus Falls, Minn., in early 2017, purportedly to try to explain why voters in a typical Midwest town came to support Donald Trump for president. But an article in Medium.com by Fergus Falls residents Michele Anderson and Jake Krohn found that many characters and anecdotes were fake.
“What kind of institutional breakdown led to the supposedly world-class Der Spiegel fact-checking team completely dropping the ball on this one?” they asked after it emerged that Relotius had been forced to resign.
The Der Spiegel editors originally said he “distorts reality” in the piece entitled “In a Small Town.”
Among the many falsehoods Anderson and Krohn found, there is no sign in the town that reads, “Mexicans Keep Out.”
The Clint Eastwood film “American Sniper,” which Relotius claimed had been playing to sell-out crowds for two straight years in the local cinema, had not played there since February 2015.
In one anecdote, he claims a town administrator carried a Beretta pistol on the job, had never seen the ocean and had never been with a woman.
The Fergus Falls writers produced a photo of that same administrator on a vacation trip to the ocean with his longtime live-in girlfriend. The administrator said he owned no Beretta and never carried a weapon at work.
Another picture in the disputed article shows a man described as a “coal plant worker.” In reality, the picture is of a United Parcel Service worker who once ran the local gym. In another, Relotius has a picture of a Mexican woman whom he claimed owned a Mexican restaurant and suffered from kidney disease. In reality, she was a waitress in the restaurant owned by her sister- in-law but was never interviewed.
In another instance, he describes locals watching the Super Bowl — at a pizza place that wasn’t open on the day of the game.
In another instance, he said a local diner had windows facing the coal power plant — when in reality the diner was underground with no windows.
Der Spiegel said it was another one of its reporters, Juan Moreno, who co-authored a piece entitled “Hunters Border” with Relotius in November on a pro-Trump vigilante group said to be involved in hunting down illegal immigrants on the Arizona-Mexico border, who alerted it to sourcing problems. Moreno told editors he had been suspicious of the sourcing on the story all along and on a subsequent trip to the US, he contacted two of the subjects quoted extensively in the article by Relotius.
Both of the subjects said they had never spoken to Relotius.
In an apology to readers, Der Spiegel acknowledged, “For three to four weeks, Moreno went through hell because colleagues and those senior to him did not want to believe his accusations at first.”
It said that Relotius rebuffed the accusations at first “until there came a point when that didn’t work anymore, until he finally couldn’t sleep anymore, haunted by the fear of being discovered.”
As recently as this month, Relotius won Germany’s Reporter of the Year award for a story about a young Syrian boy in which much of the sourcing has now been deemed suspect.
In 2014, he was named CNN’s Journalist of the Year for an article that appeared in a Swiss magazine.
Among other stories that Der Spiegel discovered fabricated was an article in which he claimed to interview the parents of Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback who decided to kneel during the playing of the US national anthem before games to protest police brutality.
In his confession, according to the magazine, Relotius said, “I am sick and I need to get help.”
“It wasn’t because of the next big thing,” he was quoted as saying. “It was fear of failing. My pressure to not be able to fail got even bigger the more successful I became.”
Yet, there was a method to his ‘madness.’ Relotius wasn’t just making random ‘mistakes’ in his ‘reporting.’ Relotius was feeding a narrative. In the reporting from Syria Relotius was backing the US, EU and Saudi Arabia’s opposition to the Syrian secular government. Relotius was supporting the insurgent Islamic ‘rebels’ and Al Qaeda types fighting alongside of the Islamic State. In the US Relotius was backing the Liberal establishment media narrative that white working class Americans oppose mass immigration for illogical racist reasons. In the Ukraine conflict Relotius dressed up the fascistic Ukrainian street fighters as innocent democracy protesters facing Soviet made tanks. Relotius picked a side in every conflict and he did so to back the main stream narrative. He never made ‘mistakes’ that went against the main idea the media was pushing to manufacture consent.
With the skill of a fiction writer who knows what his audience wants invented interviews, created malevolent characters, described years long theatrical performances in public that never happened, and described public billboard advertising that simply did not exist in the real world. But his ‘editors’ never noticed? Why? Because they see their job as manufacturing consent for the narrative they push as job number one. Checking facts is done only to the extent that it must be to maintain some credibility.
From Syria to Ukraine to the US border with Mexico Relotius was repeating establishment media propaganda with a single minded devotion that was not bogged down in verifiable ‘facts.’ Relotius won awards, and even won an award after his absurd Mexican vacation reporting was being exposed. Relotius was a top propagandist for the Ministry of Media Truth, until he wasn’t. Darn those pesky ‘fact checkers.’ So what if there really isn’t a billboard in a small American town that says “Mexicans Keep Out!” The image is so chillingly stark that readers flock to a story reporting the billboard. The political movement created by the reporting and support for cause of immigrants rights is more important than the mundane truth to reporter/activists like Relotius. But surely he did not become an establishment media fiction writing activist because of ‘pressure’ or mental failings. Relotius just doesn’t like getting caught.
“I am sick and I need to get help.” wrote Relotius. Is that the answer for someone who is devoted to the Right Wingers in Ukraine, supports the armed Islamic ‘rebels’ in Syria, and opposes Americans who support Trump? Is holding any of these political positions and using the news media to advance them a ‘sickness?’ Relotius is still writing fiction.