Fergus Falls The Relotius Scandal Reaches a Small Town in America
Claas Relotius, the DER SPIEGEL journalist outed this week for churning out fraudulent stories, wrote for the magazine about the U.S. town of Fergus Falls. Two locals fact-checked his reporting, and their verdict is devastating -- a perfect example of how DER SPIEGEL's editorial safeguards failed.
In March 2017, DER SPIEGEL published the story "In a Small Town." It was set in Fergus Falls, a town in Minnesota that was supposedly typical of the rural America that made Donald Trump president. The story was written by DER SPIEGEL editor Claas Relotius, who allegedly spent a month reporting in the town.
Two residents of Fergus Falls, Michele Anderson and Jake Krohn, read the story a week after it was published -- as they later described in an article they published online after the scandal broke.
According to Anderson and Krohn, the story immediately raised their suspicions. At first, they thought that it might be a problem with the translation; because the article had not appeared on SPIEGEL International, the magazine's English website, they used Google to translate the article from German into English. But their doubts remained even after they received a professional translation, and they resolved, they write in their article, to check Relotius' claims themselves.
On Wednesday, after DER SPIEGEL publicly revealed that Claas Relotius had spent years including fraudulent passages, made up quotes and invented scenes in his stories, Anderson and Krohn published their own findings under the headline, "Der Spiegel journalist messed with the wrong small town." In the piece, the authors noted that they had spent a year and a half investigating Relotius' story. As Krohn later wrote on Twitter: "Hindsight being what it is, yes, we do wish we had spoken out more forcefully earlier on. But would have anyone believed us?"
"In 7,300 words he really only got our town's population and average annual temperature correct, and a few other basic things, like the names of businesses and public figures, things that a child could figure out in a Google search. The rest is uninhibited fiction (even as sloppy as citing an incorrect figure of citywide 70.4% electoral support for Trump, when the actual number was 62.6%), which 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."
Relotius had painted a tendentious, malicious portrait of the small, rural town and, in doing so, he had leaned heavily on ugly, misleading prejudices.
The reporting contained so many falsehoods that Anderson and Krohn limited themselves to citing just the "top 11 most absurd lies." DER SPIEGEL is reprinting their list of inaccuracies here, though we have not yet been able to check them ourselves. We have, however, begun the process of vetting the article and a brief list of inaccuracies we have identified is included at the end of this article. A DER SPIEGEL reporter is currently on assignment in Fergus Falls to investigate the piece's inaccuracies and fabrications.
Here are the "most absurd lies" cited by Anderson and Krohn:
1. The Sleeping Dragon
Relotius described the town in his piece as being located in a dark forest that looked as if dragons might live in it. At the entrance to the town, he wrote, there was a sign reading: "Welcome to Fergus Falls, home of damn good folks."
"Fergus Falls is located on the prairie," write Anderson and Krohn. They note that there are hardly any trees. And the town sign simply reads: "Welcome to Fergus Falls."
2. The gun-toting, virgin city administrator
In Relotius' story, the 27 year-old city administrator, Andrew Bremseth, is said to have never had a girlfriend, to always carry a 9mm Beretta pistol, and to have a preference for 18th century French philosophers.
None of that is true, Bremseth says according to Anderson and Krohn.
3. The town is obsessed with 'American Sniper'
Relotius wrote that the Fergus Falls movie theater was still showing the war film "American Sniper" two years after its release.
"This anecdote that supported Relotius' exaggerated story of an immigrant-fearing, gun obsessed small town one was the easiest to fact check and yet the strangest, most random lie for him to craft," write Anderson and Krohn. The two writers note that they contacted the manager of the cinema, who told them that "American Sniper" played for about a month, from Jan. 16 to Feb. 19, 2015.
4. Neil, the coal plant employee that doesn't exist
Neil Becker, a blonde, 57-year-old who works in a coal-fired power plant, appears in the article and is even depicted in a photo.
"We all know that guy," write Anderson and Krohn. "It's the one and only Doug Becker, who works for UPS and ran the Fergus Falls Fitness Center for years."
5. The mixed-up case of Israel and Maria
"Maria Rodriguez, a mother and local restaurant owner from Mexico, who came to the USA years ago, also saw Trump as a savior," wrote Relotius. In the story as written by Relotius, she suffered from kidney disease, the treatment for which was getting more expensive, and had a 15 year-old son named Israel who was being bullied at school.
The illness was made up, according to Anderson and Krohn. Maria Rodriguez's son is named Pablo, not Israel, and Maria is not the owner, but a waitress at the restaurant. Relotius took a photo of Pablo, but never spoke with him.
6. The view from the Viking Café
Relotius wrote that a coal-fired power plant with its six smokestacks was visible from the Viking Café.
The Viking Café, though, has almost no windows, as Anderson and Krohn point out, other than a pair of small windows in front that look out onto the street. Anderson and Krohn write that the power plant is located about 2 miles (3 kilometers) away, behind a neighborhood on a hill, and it has only one smokestack.
7. Library lies
In Relotius' article, City Administrator Andrew Bremseth is described as offering courses like "iPad for Beginners" along with monthly quiz nights. His favorite TV-series, Relotius writes, is "Game of Thrones."
These descriptions were entirely made up, according to Anderson and Krohn.
8. High school security
Entry to the local high school is secured by three armored glass doors and a weapons-scanner, according to Relotius' reporting.
In reality, the school has two sets of entry doors, not three. Anderson and Krohn say they are reasonable sure that the claim that the doors are made of bulletproof glass is an exaggeration.
9. Secret Super Bowl viewing at the Brewery?
Relotius relates how City Administrator Andrew Bremseth watched the Super Bowl at the Union Pizza restaurant.
The Super Bowl takes place on a Sunday -- and Union Pizza is closed on Sundays. The owner of the restaurant was taken aback when Anderson and Krohn asked him if Union Pizza might have opened for a private Super Bowl party. Bremseth told the two authors that he did not watch the Super Bowl there.
10. The awesome "Western Evening" that no one was invited to.
Relotius' story contains a description of a summer party where all the town residents dressed up in Western gear like cowboy boots and hats. Sand and straw were allegedly spread out on the veranda of a bar and sides of beef were grilled over a fire.
"We find this hilarious, if not a little inspiring for a future event idea," write Anderson and Krohn. No such party has ever taken place in Fergus Falls.
11. The High School New York trip
Relotius claimed that the local high school took a trip to New York and visited Trump Tower, but not the Statue of Liberty.
Anderson and Krohn couldn't find any evidence of a trip to New York by a school group in 2017, and the schoolchildren whom he quoted couldn't be found either.
As a first step, DER SPIEGEL had its fact-checking department take a look at parts of Relotius' story again and concluded that the verification process was in fact not adhered to.
Here are a few examples of details that jumped out:
- Fergus Falls is not 2,200 kilometers away from New York, but 1,888.
- It's highly unlikely that a person quoted in the article said that he would shoot wolves while hunting, because wolves are a protected species in Minnesota.
- The alleged presence of a stuffed wild boar in the town hall is not impossible, but unlikely, because there are no wild boars in Minnesota.
- The cited results of the 2012 presidential elections are false, as is the statement that the town voted for a Democratic candidate for the last 40 years. In 2012, a majority of the townspeople voted for Republican candidate Mitt Romney.
DER SPIEGEL did not check the facts as carefully as dictated by its statutes. Editors and fact-checkers were too reliant on the supposed trustworthiness of the reporter. The magazine's internal fact-checking guidelines, according to which descriptions of places and landscapes only require limited verification, were applied too loosely.
But the initial review we have now conducted also shows that even if the whole story had been fact-checked according to the magazine's existing guidelines and all obvious mistakes and inaccuracies removed, large parts of the text could still have been fiction. DER SPIEGEL can only apologize to the residents of Fergus Falls. We are sorry.
Pending a full investigation, articles by Claas Relotius will remain available online, but marked with a notice, in part to encourage further research. Please send tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Translated from the German by Valentyna Polunina