Der Spiegel and an egregious failure of journalistic responsibility

I have never actually been to Fergus Falls, Minnesota, although it’s only an hour north of here, and I’ve driven by/through it many times on my way to Fargo and points north and west. It’s a good-sized city as those things go in this region — about 13,000 people — and I’ve had students from Fergus in my classes. Recently, though, Fergus Falls was libeled by a perfidious German reporter.

I blame Der Spiegel. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, there’s a bad trope where some big city newspaper decides to send a reporter to flyover country to figure out how the yokels could have elected an idiot like Trump, and they come in with expectations: they’re going to find a bunch of inbred hicks with no education, no teeth, and a meth or oxycontin addiction, who are slavishly following the orders of their preacher in some benighted Protestant cult (if you’re from the New York Times, you’re also expected to find anything but racism as the cause; foreign papers don’t feel that need). It’s true that if you look you’ll find people who meet your preconceptions, and that you can find them even in the big cities, but the reality is always more complex than that — we have college towns, we have public radio (not just Rush Limbaugh), we have atheists and liberals, and historically, the upper midwest used to be a major center of socialist political activity, and some of those old Democratic-Farmer-Labor people are still around. So don’t show up in our neighborhoods expecting a wash of Republican Red, you’re going to find a much messier story here.

Claas Relotious was not prepared for that. He was assigned to spend a month in Fergus Falls, getting to know the orcs and trolls who lived there, and write a substantial expose for Der Spiegel that would reveal the truth about the Mordor of the Midwest. Because he’s an incompetent journalist, when he didn’t find the facts that fit the story he wanted to write, he made up the facts. So he told readers in Germany that next to the “Welcome to Fergus Falls” sign, there was a second sign that said “Mexicans Keep Out”. He wrote up an interview with a local coal miner…there are no coal mines in Fergus Falls, or anywhere in the state: “There is no history of coal mining in Minnesota, as the state has little or no coal reserves.”

His article was one giant collection of transparent lies, unbelievable garbage that had no connection to reality. He won awards for his “journalism”. Then people complained. Someone at Der Spiegel noticed. Relotious was recently fired.

But Der Spiegel still makes money off of it.

Too late now, of course. Relotius is out of a job and his reputation is shot all the way to Pelican Rapids.

The article, however, lies and all, is still online.

Der Spiegel says it has added notes to Relotius’ articles, indicating they will not be changed until its investigation is completed. If there’s one attached to the Fergus Falls article, one only sees it after one pays a buck-and-a-half to read it.

Der Spiegel now says they were hoodwinked by a con artist. They really do have fact checkers, they insist, who just didn’t catch his lies. It wasn’t the editors’ fault, they say.

Already, every text printed in DER SPIEGEL goes through a thorough fact-checking and vetting process to review the accuracy of every fact stated in an article. When Claas Relotius wrote in his first major feature for DER SPIEGEL, “At Home in Hell,” that the city of Marianna is located “an hour by car west of Tallahassee” in northern Florida, a DER SPIEGEL fact-checker reviewed whether that detail was accurate.

Great. But then they have to reveal that this guy has done all these major stories in the US, in Mexico, in Syria, etc., that he got these amazing interviews with people like Colin Kaepernick’s parents, that he’d published 55 articles in their magazine over 14 years, and had simply made shit up. It wasn’t the editors fault, though, because they wouldn’t have reprimanded him if he’d failed to find a story, oh no. It’s only one bad reporter, and no one else.

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.

Their whole revelation of the scandal reads like a desperate attempt to deflect all blame away from themselves. Relotious was a bad guy, no doubt, but when your fact checkers are so thorough that they double-check the reported distance between two Florida cities, but they can’t figure out that the central figures in his stories do not exist, there is a big problem at the top. They should be embarrassed.


  1. dfjo65 says

    I guess that Jason Blair continues to lurk in the background. Most disappointing aspect, for me, is that Der Spiegel had posted the cover showing The Donald, having done a Kathy Griffin, to the Statue of Liberty.

  2. Chabneruk says

    I have worked as a journalist in Germany and as such I tend to follow blogs and websites interested in the media. Most of the critical sites share your scepticism. Relotius has written what is called the typical “Spiegel Reportage”, the “Reportage” being a type of story that conveys information via impressions from the place the reporter was sent to. If done right, it is regarded as the “Königsdisziplin” (most prestigious way to do journalism), as it is really difficult to combine first-hand impressions and information.

    Obviously, Relotuis did not have the skill to do it. He was, however, an excellent storyteller and kept his facts straight in regards to easily verifiable information. And yes, the fact-checkers did fall for it, when they shouldn’t have. But as someone who has been dealing with deadlines and pressure, I can at least understand why it happened – even though it is still inexcusable.

    Interestingly enough, just as the Weinstein case started #metoo, other journalists from all kinds of media have suddenly come forward and begun to talk about other reporters who – to their knowledge – have similarly faked stories. The problem seems to be a systemic one, as many of these other reporters are now in positions of leadership, due to their stories winning prizes etc.

    What really made me laugh was that the Spiegel chose to present the Relotius case themselves – which is, of course, commendable. But which form did they chose to do it in? As a “Spiegel Reportage”.

  3. Zeppelin says

    The Spiegel is one of those magazines where the articles all seem quite interesting and insightful except, by some strange coincidence, the ones on subjects you know anything about. I’ve always found their Reportagestil kind of distracting and cloying, even when they were doing good investigative journalism, but it’s been getting steadily worse.

  4. zetopan says

    “[Der Spiegel] really [does] have fact checkers”

    Right and no doubt they are going to fact check even harder now. This reminds me of the American toy company several years ago claiming that they were going to utilize even greater scrutiny when checking their overseas supplier materials, after it was shown that their imported toys contained lead and other hazardous materials, which they had obviously not bothered to examine at all! Spin it to hide the fact that nothing was really being checked.

  5. jrkrideau says

    Do we know if Relotius actually was in Fergus Falls? He might have been in Munich or Monaco.

    Still, why does one have to go to a place to write about it. Karl May, the famous Westerns’ writer , never got west of Buffalo and apparently he was only in the USA for a total of six weeks.

    Here in Canada we have one columnist who is so well-noted for her plagiarism she even has her own fact-checking or perhaps more appropriately Wente-checking blog. Apparently her guards err, fact-checkers have been doing a better job lately. Her last entry in Media Culpa was back in 2016. How she keeps her job is a wonder to everyone but, presumably, the newspaper’s board.

  6. chrislawson says


    Karl May was writing adventure novels not journalism, and even so he put a lot of work into researching the areas and times he wrote about. He’s a very interesting character — in his youth he was a petty thief and con artist whose life was turned around by being put in charge of the prison library and discovering the power of writing. Kind of the reverse of the path taken by Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair.

  7. says

    The puzzling thing about the Fergus Falls story is that the people he made up aren’t that hard to find.
    Seriously, many blogs here post about them on a daily basis. And during my year Ireland I met so many clichéed Americans who were totally ignorant of the world that it was painful.
    But many female German journalists habe remarked that they never ever get the chance to fuck up that big and this guy got money and prizes in heaps.