The follow-up stories to the headline-grabbing viral ones never receive as much attention. This one, where Der Spiegel’s Christoph Scheuermann went to the town at the center of the Claas Relotius journalism scandal, should.
I arrived in Fergus Falls on Thursday, the day after DER SPIEGEL went public with internal revelations about Relotius’ journalistic fraud. I’m here to describe the city as it really is, to process what has happened, but also to better understand what Relotius did during the time he spent here.
The fairy tale begins right at the beginning when the author writes that the bus to Fergus Falls rolls toward a dark forest that looks like “dragons could be living in it.” I looked for that forest. It doesn’t exist, even though there are trees in and around Fergus Falls and small forests here and there.
You get overcome by strange feelings when you travel to hunt down the fabrications of an ex-colleague, but it’s even weirder when you try to compare reality with the fake images that his story ingrained in your head. You meet people who resemble Relotius’ figures, but the longer you talk to them, the greater the distance grows between those depictions and the reality.
In some cases, the names that were used in the fabricated story are the same as a person in the town, like Maria Rodriguez (“a mother and restaurant owner from Mexico”) and the city administrator. But in others, they are fake, as with “Neil Becker” (“a worker who had shoveled coal all his life and, one day, no longer understood his party, the Democrats”) or “Israel Rodriguez” (the alleged son of Maria). Ultimately, you come to the realization that there is no actual connection between the real people and the characters described in the article.
Scheuermann goes on to lament that the real people he found in Fergus Falls are far more interesting than the fabrications of Relotius’ creation. The journalism standards, and failures there of, by Der Spiegel in the Relotius mess are obvious, but Scheurmann’s piece touches on something that is overlooked frequently. In our world of ever-faster news cycles, the very real people left behind when the cameras and clicks subside deal with the fallout long after attention has gone elsewhere.
Later, in his office, Schierer shows me plans for a new playground and a small amphitheater, with market stalls around it. It makes me think that the made-up article likely injured more than just local pride here. It’s probably that people have also been left feeling unrecognized in their drive to push the town forward. Relotius had described the place as a backwater. In his fabricated article, people here travel only rarely and prefer to watch “X-Files” or game shows in the evening rather than read the opinion pages of The New York Times. In his article, he wrote that they aren’t racists, but then someone, in Relotius’ imagination, put up a sign with the inscription at the entrance to the village: “Mexican’s Keep Out.” That sign, everybody tells me, never existed.
The longer I stay here, the more I get the impression that I’m conducting an investigation at the scene of a crime. “Fox & Friends,” the president’s favorite show, interviews the mayor, the local TV station has sent a camera team, the German tabloid Bild newspaper was set to send a reporter and the U.S. Embassy in Germany is also getting involved.
Claas Relotius was a lying fraud, but there is a larger lesson than just journalism gone wrong that we can learn here.
I remember when I moved to Germany the first time, and Der Spiegel was one of the prominent German news magazines that has an “international” version, meaning it was available in English. The memory of consuming it and other sources as I tried to learn and settle into a culture I didn’t understand or speak the language of came to mind when this story broke. I rapidly learned the best way to find out about a people was to work through the culture and language barriers by just spending time with them. No amount of reading ever really gives you insight like sitting down to a meal, attending a local festival, or the experience of being dependent of the good graces of strangers to explain to you what’s going on. Being the one that doesn’t speak the language is something that everyone could use a bit of from time to time; it is humbling. The result is relationships and experiences I still treasure to this day.
The same goes in politics domestically. With the rash of “Understanding the Trump Voters” stories comes the assumption they are some type of alien species to be studied and understood. Perhaps if you drop that assumption and talk to people, sit down with them, and understand that politics is a part of their lives and not the defining feature would be much more healthy. Then those folks can sit down with reporters and find out they aren’t all a monolithic block of diabolical “them” out to get everyone and everything for sensational headlines. Things would be much better if, instead of trying to own the libs, some of our pundits might remember our shared humanity and work from there out, rather than starting at our differences and manning the ramparts. Wishful thinking, but much healthier wishful thinking that taking the story of a fraud reporter at face value because it seemed ok to some folks’ bias filter.
Good on Christoph Scheuermann for going there, for being apologetic and humble about it, and showing the good in both the town of Fergus Falls, himself, and his publication in trying to correct an error. If we all do that, it should be easier to spot the next Claas Relotius that tries to sell a lie about people we don’t really know.