German lifestyle magazine Neon is as successful as it is ridiculed. Some say it captures the spirit of a curiously apolitical generation of twenty- and thirty-somethings. And that the magazine is about as essential for the enlightenment of the Western world as, say, probiotic yogurt. Others see Neon as serving up a kind of modern day petit-bourgeois sensibility, with a heavy bent toward lightweight topics. There are only two aspects of Neon no one had yet called into question: the magazine's successful circulation and its authenticity.
That makes the scandal that broke late last week concerning falsified interviews even more of a catastrophe for the magazine. Neon is allowed to be pretty much anything, it seems -- but not fake.
For the magazine's two successful and ambitious editors in chief, Timm Klotzek, 36, and Michael Ebert, 35, the situation is more than just a journalistic slip-up. It marks the first public blunder in careers that have otherwise been smooth sailing.
The man at the center of the scandal is Ingo Mocek, a journalist who appears to have repeatedly padded his interviews with a great deal of his own invention. Mocek's unscrupulous style didn't come to light, however, until the management team for American singer Beyoncé recently complained that an interview with the star was nothing like the way Mocek portrayed it.
When Neon's editors questioned Mocek, he was unable to verify the statements he had written, and he was subsequently dismissed. SPIEGEL could not reach Mocek himself for comment.
"This wasn't just sloppiness, it was fabrication," said Andreas Petzold, editor in chief of the German weekly news magazine Stern. As part of the Stern stable of publications, Petzold is also the publisher of Neon. Both publications are put out by Hamburg-based publishing company Grüner + Jahr.
Echoes of a Major German Fake Interview Scandal
The Mocek case immediately calls to mind another talented falsifier, journalist Tom Kummer, who worked until 10 years ago as a freelancer for the magazine connected to the daily newspaper Süddeutschen Zeitung -- until it emerged that many of his interviews and stories were made up.
In his made-up interviews, the Swiss journalist talked about Nietzsche with Mike Tyson, with Courtney Love about her breasts and with Brad Pitt about whatever seemed to slip off the tip of the actor's tongue. The interviews became conspicuous because it was extremely unusual for German Hollywood correspondents to get such candid access to the stars. Eventually, a reporter at the German newsweekly Focus began researching Kummer and determined that he had never even spoken to a number of the stars who appeared in his interviews. Publications around the world reported on the scandal in 2000, and the Süddeutsche's reputation took a hit.
For a time, Kummer defended his compositions as a special brand of truth, talking of "borderline journalism." The ensuing discussion saw various models of journalism collide. On the one side were the postmodern first-person narrators, for whom truth proved to be a remarkably flexible concept. On the other side, adherents of investigative journalism set about documenting occurrences of similarly loose standards within their own publications.
Süddeutsche appointed a group to carry out internal investigations, published the results in its own newspaper, and even ended up parting ways with the magazine's editor in chief, Ulf Poschardt. Poschardt later applied a great deal of enthusiasm to running the German edition of Vanity Fair into the ground, and is now one of the chief editors of the Sunday newspaper Welt am Sonntag.
'Doubts' about Authenticity
Neon's editors in chief were just as quick to create an internal investigative team as the Süddeutsche was in the Kummer case. That team has since ascertained that "doubt exists as to the authenticity of four further interviews by the author published in Neon."
These interviews were part of a series in which stars -- in this case guitarist Slash and singer Christina Aguilera -- revealed their musical preferences. Or, as it turns out, didn't. Two short interviews with rappers Snoop Dogg and Jay-Z also apparently weren't conducted at all the way they were represented.
Neon's editors in chief, however, were surprisingly quick to distance themselves from any share of the responsibility, seeing themselves instead as the victims. It does seem, though, that they might have noticed that their journalist had been criticized in the past for his handling of the truth.
Neon denies this accusation. Editor in Chief Klotzek went on record saying he had never before seen any indication of this sort of problem. "We never doubted his work," he declared.
Yet there had been previous signs. In 2007, Mocek wrote a story that involved investigations into Berlin's city waterworks. The waterworks company later complained bitterly to the editors about inaccurate names, dates, and descriptions in the article.
The company wrote in a letter that Mocek had "put 'quotations' they hadn't agreed to" into its employees' mouths, and that these statements "were simply untrue." Mocek changed statements to give them the meaning he wanted, the waterworks continued, and they had not been made "in this wording."
It's not unusual, Klotzek says, for people or institutions to claim in the wake of critical reporting that they were quoted incorrectly. He says the magazine was able to refute all the points the company complained about -- the photographer who was present during the interviews confirmed the disputed quotations. Mocek's work was always "spotless," the Neon photographer declared.