Reporter Forgery DER SPIEGEL Reveals Internal Fraud
A DER SPIEGEL reporter committed large-scale journalistic fraud over several years. Internal clues and research have provided significant evidence against reporter Claas Relotius, who has since admitted to the falsifications and is no longer employed by DER SPIEGEL. Other media organizations may also have been affected.
Shortly before the end of his journalistic career, misery and glamor crossed paths in the life of Claas Relotius. On the evening of Monday, Dec. 3, Relotius, who had worked for DER SPIEGEL for seven years and had been employed as an editor for the past year and a half, was called onto a stage in Berlin. The jury for the 2018 German Reporter Prize was once again of the opinion that he had written the best feature story of the year, this one about a Syrian boy who lived with the belief that he had contributed to the country's civil war through a graffito he had daubed onto a wall in Daraa. The jurors praised the article for its "unparalleled lightness, intimacy and relevance that is never silent regarding the sources on which it is based." The truth, however -- a truth that nobody could have known at that point in time -- is that his sources were anything but clear. Indeed, it is likely that much of it was made up. Inventions. Lies. Quotes, places, scenes, characters: All fake.
That misery came in the form of an email, one which, as chance will have it, arrived some 17 hours before the glamor of the awards ceremony, at 3:05 a.m. The message came from a woman named Jan, short for Janet, who was doing media work for a vigilante group in Arizona conducting patrols along the border to Mexico. She asked Relotius -- who two weeks earlier had written an article ostensibly about this vigilante group in the darkly dazzling DER SPIEGEL report "Jaeger's Border" -- what exactly he was up to. How, she wanted to know, could Relotius have written about her group without even bothering to stop by for an interview? She found it very strange, she wrote, that a journalist would write stories without gathering facts locally.
The story "Jaeger's Border" would prove to be Relotius' undoing. It was one fabricated story too many, because this time, he had a co-author, who sounded the alarm while also collecting facts to counter his fiction. That co-author, Juan Moreno, has been traveling the world as a reporter for DER SPIEGEL since 2007. In the dispute with and surrounding Relotius, Moreno risked his own job, at times even desperately seeking to re-report his colleague's claims at his own expense. Moreno would go through three or four weeks of hell because his colleagues and senior editors in Hamburg didn't initially believe that Relotius could be nothing more than a liar.
In late November and into early December, some at DER SPIEGEL even believed that Moreno was the real phony and that Relotius was the victim of slander. Relotius skillfully parried all allegations and all of Moreno's well-researched evidence, constantly coming up with new ways of sowing doubt, plausibly refuting accusations and twisting the truth in his favor. Until, ultimately, his tricks stopped working. Until he could no longer sleep at night for fear that he might get caught. Relotius caved in last week when a superior, Özlem Gezer, deputy head of the "Gesellschaft" section where he worked, confronted him and told him outright that she no longer believed him. On Thursday, he sat down with his section head and the editor-in-chief and came clean -- or at least his version of clean.
It has now become clear that Claas Relotius, 33 years old, one of DER SPIEGEL's best writers, winner of multiple awards and a journalistic idol of his generation, is neither a reporter nor a journalist. Rather, he produces beautifully narrated fiction. Truth and lies are mixed together in his articles and some, at least according to him, were even cleanly reported and free of fabrication. Others, he admits, were embellished with fudged quotes and other made-up facts. Still others were entirely fabricated. During his confession on Thursday, Relotius said, verbatim: "It wasn't about the next big thing. It was the fear of failure." And: "The pressure not to fail grew as I became more successful."
A Crude Mishmash
That crude mishmash, which looked like masterful works of feature writing, transformed him into one of the most successful journalists in Germany in recent years. It earned Relotius the German Reporter Prize on four different occasions, the Peter Scholl Latour Prize and the Konrad-Duden, the Kindernothilfe and the Catholic and Coburger media awards. He was named CNN "Journalist of the Year," he was honored with the Reemtsma Liberty Award, the European Press Prize and he even landed on the Forbes magazine list of the "30 under 30 - Europe: Media." One wonders how he could endure the praise at the award ceremonies without running out of the hall in shame.
These revelations come as a deep shock to everyone at DER SPIEGEL -- the editorial staff, the research and fact-checking department, the business side and everyone who works here. We are all deeply shaken. The team and management of the "Gesellschaft" section where he worked at DER SPIEGEL in Hamburg are also stunned and deeply saddened by what has happened. One colleague who had been involved in the editing of Relotius' articles said at the beginning of the week that the scandal feels like "a death in the family."
The fact that Relotius had for years been able to slip through the vetting and fact-checking measures established over decades at DER SPIEGEL is particularly painful and it raises questions about internal structures here that must be addressed immediately. The fact that we were unable to prevent such flagrant violations of the DER SPIEGEL Statute, which has codified the values of this organization since 1949, is the source of tremendous pain.
Those entering the atrium of DER SPIEGEL's headquarters in Hamburg are greeted by the motto of DER SPIEGEL founder Rudolf Augstein. It distills the journalistic ideal to its most concise form: "Tell it like it is." That has always been the mission, and no one should think of those silver letters as mere wall decoration or journalistic folklore. In the words of the 1949 statute, that motto means: "All the news, information and facts processed and recorded by DER SPIEGEL absolutely have to be accurate. ... The need for corrections should be avoided at all costs at DER SPIEGEL."
The Relotius case marks a low point in the 70-year history of DER SPIEGEL. We have fallen well short of the goals that we set for ourselves, we have radically undermined our own standards and long-established values have been violated -- and we must still determine how often and in what ways. The young editor, who acted the part of the great reporter, cleaned out his office on Sunday and his employment contract was terminated on Monday.
As an author or co-author, he has published 55 original articles in DER SPIEGEL, three of which, translated into English, were published on the SPIEGEL International website and 18 were syndicated digitally to other websites. Relotius wrote articles specifically for SPIEGEL ONLINE three times. And in the decade he worked as a journalist, his work was also published in Cicero, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung am Sonntag, the now defunct Financial Times Deutschland, Die Tageszeitung, Die Welt, Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin, Weltwoche, on ZEIT Online, in ZEIT Wissen and in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. According to a self-penned biographical blurb, Relotius also wrote for the Guardian, but DER SPIEGEL has found no evidence for the claim in its digital archive.
'At Home in Hell'
DER SPIEGEL would like to apologize to anyone and everyone who has appeared in the magazine or on our website with false quotations, made-up details about their lives, invented scene-setters, in fictitious places or in otherwise false contexts in articles by Claas Relotius. The company apologizes to its readers, to all its esteemed colleagues in the industry, to the prize committees and juries, to the journalism schools, to the family of DER SPIEGEL founder Rudolf Augstein, to its business partners and its customers. DER SPIEGEL will appoint a commission, one that will also include people from outside the company, to investigate what happened and prevent it from happening again.
But even with the sincerest of intentions, it is impossible to fully rule out such an incident. To borrow a phrase from the German writer Heinrich von Kleist, the journalist, like everyone else, is subject to "human frailty." They will always be fallible.
As such, there is no simple remedy. 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.
When Relotius wrote that the small town has "three churches, two hunting clubs and a Main Street that stretches for miles between dilapidated low-rise buildings," that could also be reviewed thanks to the possibilities offered by the internet. But the problems with Relotius' articles relate not to details like that, but to his on-the-ground reporting. That work is based on the fundamental trust the editorial staff bestows on all journalists under their oversight. The fact-checking and research department at DER SPIEGEL is the journalist's natural enemy -- and that's just how DER SPIEGEL founder Rudolf Augstein wanted it. But the department also assists with reporting, providing information and details while also seeking to prevent mistakes. Ultimately, the department is also working to put out the same product. The idea that a colleague would deliberately cheat is not part of everyday considerations in journalism. The honest effort to seek truth and veracity is the rule. Cheating is the exception.
Last Thursday, Relotius said that "At Home in Hell," the story of a terrible reform school in which children were tortured for many years, was a reported story, a clean work of journalism based on interviews with the victims and contemporaneous witnesses and visits to the site. Relotius said the same of his article "God's servant," which DER SPIEGEL published in February 2015. The article is a political profile of gynecologist Willie Parker, the last doctor to perform abortions in the U.S. state of Mississippi. But how can we know if that is true in light of the new knowledge we have about Relotius' relationship to reality? How can we be sure that there is only one abortion doctor left in the state of Mississippi? Or that the doctor had previously been anti-abortion and had completely reversed course?
The Need for Accuracy
Ambiguities become apparent just as soon as you start looking for them. If you read something without suspicion, you don't notice anything. But if you're looking for something from the start, you see it everywhere. It is an element of the fundamental nature of humankind to be shockingly generous with truth and probability as long as there is no obvious reason for doubt. Our willingness to consider even the most incredible stories to be true, as long as they seem at least plausible, is almost boundless. That was the foundation for Relotius' success. His own misery will now increase immeasurably because no one is going to believe a single word from him ever again.
Relotius often incorporated songs and their lyrics in his stories, and the scenes in which they appear are often remarkable for their fascinating perfection. Convicts standing in washrooms suddenly begin to sing a pop song, or a lost child walks down a dark street singing a sad song. The music expands the kinds of associations that link us to the stories, making them overwhelmingly stimulating in these passages, feeding the reader's imagination. The writing feels cinematic, a quality that is frequently cited in award ceremonies for journalists. Relotius, too, had been told the same thing over and over again about his articles. In contrast to the cinema, though, everything in journalism has to be accurate from the beginning to the end.
In "God's Servant," a CD player is playing quietly in the hallway of the abortion clinic, supposedly playing the same Tom Petty song over and over again: "I Won't Back Down." The lyrics of the song fit so perfectly into the story that it seems, in retrospect, almost too good to be true. When asked a specific question about the music on Thursday, Relotius admitted that when there is singing in his stories, it's usually made up. But is this also true when CD players are playing quietly? Or if a radio is playing somewhere with a song that fits the story?
As an editor and section head, your first reaction when receiving stories like this is to be pleased, not suspicious. You are more interested in evaluating the story based on criteria such as craftsmanship, dramaturgy and harmonious linguistic images than on whether it's actually true. And Relotius always delivered excellent stories that required little editing and were very rewarding. Relotius was a particularly valuable employee. He didn't just write big stories, he demonstrated his talent and his dedication to his profession, week after week. He took his turn at the editing desk, did small interviews and rapidly churned out copy for the DER SPIEGEL column called "Eine Meldung und ihre Geschichte," a weekly format, which looks deeper into amusing recent headlines. It was a format that suited him. His sense of humor and quickness made him an excellent fit.
Born in 1985, he was pleasantly different from many of his peers, who often come to DER SPIEGEL as interns, armed with good ideas and strong opinions, especially about their own abilities. Relotius was a modest person, tall, reserved, polite, attentive, maybe a tad too serious on occasion -- on the whole, the kind of person whose parents you'd like to congratulate for having such a successful son. He didn't make a strong impression in meetings, but he was, after all, still younger than 30 when he arrived at DER SPIEGEL in spring 2014 as a promising new freelancer. He didn't yet have an office, or even a building pass. He was paid by the story, and he made decent money.
Still a freelance journalist at the time, he also wrote for other publications, but DER SPIEGEL developed a closer relationship with him over time. Soon, he began receiving a decent guaranteed base pay -- and he delivered. He contributed to stories written together by several journalists in the section, he wrote smaller reports, reliably produced high-quality stories and was a quick learner. He was open to ideas from others and implemented suggestions from his section editors. He also consulted with colleagues on his and their work and helped new interns get on their feet. He was the sort of coworker you look forward to seeing in the office.
From time to time, he would also land an amazing story, starting with "Number 440" in April 2016, the gripping account of a Yemenite wrongly imprisoned in Guantanamo. After 14 years of torture and solitary confinement, he was so broken that he no longer wanted to be released. Just three months later, in July, DER SPIEGEL published "Royal Children," a Relotius classic that was showered with awards. It was the story of two orphans from Aleppo who ended up as child slaves in Turkey.
Relotius admits that "Number 440" contains some fabrications, but claims that "Royal Children" does not. But this is how "Royal Children" begins: "One early morning this summer, 13-year-old Alin, fatigue visible in her eyes, walks alone through the dark, pre-dawn streets of the Turkish city of Mersin. Alin is singing as she walks." When a character starts singing in a Relotius story, it is usually an indicator that his imagination has shifted into high gear. In hindsight, it seems more obvious, but in the day-to-day of editing, it was obscured. After all, months would sometimes pass between the stories, making it challenging to identify such patterns. In "Royal Children" the text continues: "The slap of her flip flops accompanies her as she makes her way through the factory district, passing dilapidated buildings, with dogs still asleep and streetlights unlit. Alin is singing as she walks, a hopeful song about two children with little to hope for -- two children who had experienced the worst, but who were to be saved nonetheless."
Some might find the writing beautiful, others kitschy. But the question as to whether such a children's song even exists in Syria is certainly one an editor could ask. Yet even if there wasn't, it would be hard to prove that the reporter was making it up. When Relotius met with the girl's brother Ahmed, a photographer was present, essentially an independent witness. But Relotius took the picture of the girl Alin himself and he was alone with her, without photographers. Is that enough to assume that it's a fake? Relotius accompanied the girl to her basement sewing workshop, as if it were the kind of place you could simply walk in and out of. He descended the steps -- 15 steps, he writes, because Relotius had learned that precise numbers make your writing seem more credible -- into the basement with her, a basement that stank of sweat.
Maybe it did happen that way. Perhaps Relotius accompanied not only the one child but also the other, perhaps the girl sang a song and said everything he claims she said, so that he could write it down and report it with a clear conscience. But how can anyone believe him? After all, he has admitted that his tale of the inner transformation of Guantanamo prisoner Mohammed Bwasir is a complete fabrication.
He employed a trick to masterfully conceal the story's untruth by stressing the impossibility of his own actions. In fact, he stated very clearly at the beginning of the Guantanamo story: "A reporter who travels to Guantanamo cannot see Mohammed Bwasir there, nor can he speak with him, but there are people who give him a voice." According to Relotius, these people were a lawyer, a brother "in Yemen" and former cell neighbors, and there are also camp reports, leaked secret files and personal letters. But how much access did Relotius have? What papers was he actually familiar with? How closely did the lawyer cooperate with him?
He Knows Nothing
His story suggests that he examined the prisoner's many letters, which were written in Arabic and translated by a member of the lawyer's staff. He summarized the letters and wrote as though he had a comprehensive overview of the entire bundle: "In the beginning, the word 'future' often appeared in his writings," he noted for instance. What does Relotius know about the beginning, the middle or the end of a period of time extending over 14 years? He knows nothing -- and he admitted it last Thursday when he confessed that he largely imagined the prisoner's inner transformation. And we almost certainly can't believe him when he writes, live from the bowels of Guantanamo: "Then the soldiers turn on the music, pumped in via four loudspeakers directly next to his head: It's Bruce Springsteen's 'Born in the U.S.A.'"
In February 2017, DER SPIEGEL published "Lion Boys," a heart-wrenching story that made waves well beyond journalistic circles. It told of how Islamic State had abducted two brothers, ages 12 and 13, brainwashed them, and dispatched them to Kirkuk as suicide bombers.
It's the stuff of legendary features. In stories like these, the present is consolidated into a readable format, vast lines of contemporary history become tangible, and suddenly the big picture is painted on a very human scale. Reporters who have this kind of material, and a talent for dramaturgy, can spin gold out of it like in a fairytale. Relotius has this talent. But he invented the material. He wrote one of the best stories published in recent years, a masterpiece. The presenter of the coveted Peter Scholl Latour Prize, Paul-Josef Raue -- a man who has been in the newspaper business for decades -- said that as he read the story he was proud to be a journalist because "journalism just doesn't get any better than this."
Claas Relotius blinded everyone: Editors-in-chief, department heads, fact checkers, other editors, students of journalism and his own friends. Jury members from all walks of life -- bishops and entrepreneurs, human rights activists and media representatives, politicians and patrons of the arts -- were ecstatic about his work. And with good reason: His stories were often awe-inspiring and engrossing. But in "Lion Boys" he put long conversations in the mouth of the would-be suicide bomber Nadim -- a person who apparently exists, but with whom Relotius was never able to speak at length. Relotius quoted him reciting verses from the Koran that his IS captors allegedly drummed into his head.
"Lion Boys" is a particularly appalling example of the fraud committed by Relotius. The figure of the physician, upon which much of the story is based, never existed. And the text says the following about the excerpts from the Koran: "Nadim has not forgotten any of these verses. He sits in his cell and repeats them one after the other, the way shy children recite poems, staring at the floor, breathless. Surah 9, verse 41: 'Go forth, whether light or heavy, and strive with your wealth and your lives in the cause of Allah.'" And it goes on and on like this, surah after surah, and none of it actually happened, except in the mind of the author who is piecing together yet another award-winning story.
Just one month later, in late March 2017, an article headlined "In a Small Town," a snapshot of Fergus Falls, Minnesota, appeared in DER SPIEGEL. The idea behind the article came from editors in Hamburg, with the goal of going beyond merely excoriating from on high the first few months of U.S. President Donald Trump's tenure, instead attempting to view events from the perspective of those who had likely voted for him: rural Americans who live in flyover country. The plan was for Relotius to rent an apartment in Fergus Falls, meet people, listen to what they had to say, and produce a snapshot that would allow readers to gain a slightly better understanding of the Americans.
The plan, as happens frequently in journalism, didn't work out. Relotius couldn't find any suitable figures for weaving a story, he couldn't make any headway with the idea. He sent emails back home, including to colleagues at DER SPIEGEL, complaining that he was stuck. He found himself in a situation that every reporter is familiar with: There simply isn't a story. In cases like this, quick decisions are necessary: Abort the story or continue? Give it another go or drop it? Look for a new angle or return home?
DER SPIEGEL gives its reporters a very free hand in situations like these. No staff member -- especially not one that had published the kind of stories Relotius had -- has to worry about getting into hot water for failing to bring home a story. All journalists know that these kinds of things happen, that some lines of reporting lead to dead ends, that good material does not always make for good stories, and sometimes money is burned up that could have been put to better use. Those are the risks involved.
Relotius simply refused to accept those realities. 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.
In his story about Fergus Falls, Relotius bent and twisted reality in a repugnant and arrogant manner. To ensure a gripping lead, he wrote that next to the welcome sign at the edge of town, there was also a second sign -- "half as tall, but almost impossible to overlook." On this sign, made of thick wood rammed into the frozen soil, stood in large painted letters: 'Mexicans Keep Out'"
This sign, which set the tone for the entire story, never existed, except for in the author's imagination. But he passed on his creation as fact to hundreds of thousands of readers -- and insulted the inhabitants of Fergus Falls in the process. Relotius gave the inhabitants of Fergus Falls made-up biographies to suit his needs, as if he were a puppeteer. He invented grotesque lies and reported, for example, that the students at the John F. Kennedy high school drew their role models for the American dream as follows: "They did not draw a single picture of a woman," Relotius wrote. "One class drew Barack Obama, two drew John D. Rockefeller. Most of them drew Donald Trump." All of this is pure fiction. Every single bit is concocted bunk.
A Vast Palette
Does Relotius ultimately believe in his own creations? He denies it. He knows that he fabricated stories and deceived his readers, he says -- and to do so in this day and age, someone like him has the largest imaginable toolbox at his disposal. He doesn't say so, but with the help of Facebook, YouTube, Google and Wikipedia, entire worlds and communities can be created, and they seem so real and true because they often consist of snippets that somewhere on this planet are actually real and true. Relotius arranged this material, grouped it according to a topic or around a central figure, and he traveled to the locations, sometimes met people, however briefly, and all of these elements became colors, like the palette of a painter, which he used to paint his image of life.
He says he wasn't as deceitful in the case of "Blind Date," the story of an FBI translator who fell in love with German Islamic State fighter Denis Cuspert. But if the premise of the story itself already sounds fictitious, what about the details within? Nothing has yet been proven with regard to this story, but more investigation is clearly needed. Meanwhile, there are findings that make it appear that the DER SPIEGEL story about Colin Kaepernick -- the football star who knelt during the national anthem to protest daily racism in America and ended up without a job -- was largely fabricated.
By the time Relotius wrote about Kaepernick and DER SPIEGEL published the story "Touchdown" in October 2017, the football player had long since become a global icon. Relotius was unable to get an interview with him. But he remained determined "to make it happen," and instead of doggedly working to gain access to key figures in the story, he mentally transported himself to places that remained closed off to him, to gyms to which he had no admission, and into phone calls with Kaepernick's parents. The story's lead is written as if Relotius were sitting in the front row, but he wasn't even there at all. Kaepernick, he wrote, "looked into the faces of three dozen black girls and boys who were sitting on chairs in front of him; he paused at length, like someone who knows the truth but doesn't dare to proclaim it."
And before long, Relotius miraculously had Kaepernick's parents on the line. "They hesitated over whether they should speak about their son on the phone. They didn't want to cause any trouble for him, they said, but they also wanted people to understand him. Finally -- at times crying, at times laughing -- the mother told his story." The phone conversation carried the entire story that followed. But it never took place. In response to a question as to whether elements of the DER SPIEGEL story might be inaccurate, Kaepernick's lawyer responded by email: "There is no basis." It was not until Relotius was confronted last Thursday with this statement by the lawyer that he admitted to never having spoken with the parents. Earlier, during the same conversation, he had still maintained that the opposite was true.
In March 2018, Relotius' story "The Last Witness" was published. It was a superbly gripping piece about an American woman who serves as a witness to executions because the law requires the presence of ordinary citizens. The woman is in favor of the death penalty, so she sees it as her duty to support the state on this issue. To flesh out the story, Relotius ascribed her with dramatic personal experiences that further explained her actions. Relotius accompanied her, he claims, throughout the entire story, always right at her side. This proximity is apparent from the very beginning of the story, when she leaves her house in Joplin, Missouri, "to watch a man die who she doesn't know. She locks the door, turns the key three times, then walks through the empty streets to the bus station. She purchases a round-trip Greyhound ticket to Huntsville, Texas, for $141."
It's a remarkable, sensitively rendered portrayal, masterfully told, in which the reporter apparently spent a great deal of time with the story's main character -- a woman who requested that her real name not be used, which happens from time to time. Relotius gave her the name Gayle Gladdis. "She sits near the front, on the right-hand side of the bus. She says that she often feels nauseous on long bus rides." And: "Gladdis takes a deep breath and presses her fists together in her lap so firmly that her knuckles turn white." And: "She's wearing a blouse and a cross on her necklace; she thumbs through her Bible. She's read it so often that the cover has yellowed and the pages are dog-eared. She opens to Leviticus, chapter 24, where it says: 'Whoever kills a man must be put to death.'"
It all fits perfectly. But it's not true. None of it. Claas Relotius never accompanied a woman to executions in America. He never traveled by bus with her, and he never paged through Leviticus with her. He made up the story, all 40,273 characters, five pages and one column of it, published in DER SPIEGEL 10/2018, pages 58 to 63. Even for someone in his league, that must be some kind of a record.
Did things get worse over time? No, that wasn't his impression. He describes a mechanism that would kick in ever since he began working as a journalist. When the reporting was going well and he found interesting people, he worked like a "normal" journalist and didn't tamper with the material or alter anything, Relotius contends. In light of the latest revelations, one would be justified in doubting this claim.
But when he ran into difficulties, when he was stuck and couldn't find a story, then he began to fabricate. Then, he says, he would write made-up sentences and leave them in his stories, adding that he personally sometimes found them so brazen and ridiculous that he said to himself while writing: "Come on! Seriously? You'll never get away with that!"
Has he also enjoyed producing the fabrications of these past few years? Does he take delight in a successful lead, a captivating scene or a detail when everything was, well, fabricated? Relotius shook his head in response to such questions last Thursday. He said he is actually disgusted with himself when he makes things up, adding that he's sorry about everything and feels deeply ashamed. He says that it's only now that he realizes the damage that he has done to everyone around him. Something is wrong with him, says Claas Relotius, and he now needs to work on that. "I'm sick and I need to get help."
Separating Fact from Fiction
His penultimate work was "Child's Play," which was awarded the 2018 German Reporter Prize three weeks ago, on Monday, Dec. 3, as the best feature of the year. The story is about a boy who sprayed an anti-Assad message on a wall in Daraa, possibly helping to trigger the mass protests that ensued, and it appeared in DER SPIEGEL on June 23, 2018. Unfortunately, like so many other pieces from Relotius' workshop, it is full of fabrications. It is difficult to separate fact from fiction, it is difficult to determine who Relotius was actually in contact with, how often and how intensively, how their interactions were translated, and how all the mobile phone connections mentioned in the story were even technically possible.
Relotius doesn't want to go into detail, apparently out of shame. He admits that the mobile phone tour of the destroyed city never happened. He admits that the composition of the story, with narrative passages alternating with apparent interview transcripts, is falsified in the sense that the material he gathered did not include that many direct quotations from the protagonist. Relotius invented them, or fabricated them from very few quotations. On Thursday, he pointed out passages in the text that are fake, but without precision, instead gesturing at entire paragraphs.
The story "Jaeger's Border" is where Claas Relotius' story as a journalist reached its conclusion. One could spend a lot of time dwelling on the before and after, but what really matters is the outcome: that in the course of this reporting and its publication in DER SPIEGEL a horrific episode is coming to an end, a charade that Claas Relotius was able to perform unhindered for far too long. It is Juan Moreno who, against all odds, never let up, continued reporting, pressed ahead, and believed in his facts. It wasn't easy for him. He initially ran into brick walls, like a whistleblower who isn't believed at first because his truths are so uncomfortable -- and because the accused seems so unsuspicious and so blameless.
The genesis of "Jaeger's Border" is a small novel in itself. In the course of the reporting, with Claas Relotius in the United States and Juan Moreno traveling on the Mexican side of the border, many disagreements arose, which subsequently contributed to the fact that the accusations leveled by Moreno were not taken more seriously and clarified more quickly. Relotius also became more energetic in November with his cover-up efforts. He messed around with emails and sent misleading screenshots of Facebook pages. Ultimately, though, he would be crushed by the evidence that Moreno had gathered against him.
At first it was little things, like the names of the characters that appear in "Jaeger's Border," details about their backgrounds and identities. But then the problems started looking much more significant, such as the fact that much of what Relotius wrote about the days he spent with a militia bore a strong resemblance to a long story written by investigative reporter Shane Bauer for the magazine Mother Jones. There are also many differences, of course. But the main characters in the militia written about in DER SPIEGEL are called Jaeger, Pain, Ghost and Spartan -- just like the main characters in the Mother Jones story. Could it just be a crazy coincidence? And why is the man in camouflage, a photo of whom appears in DER SPIEGEL, called Chris Jaeger -- and not Chris Maloof, as he was identified in the New York Times, which used the same photo in late 2016?
Relotius produced a draft with the working title "Showdown," but Moreno was extremely unhappy with it. On the evening before it was to go to press, he saw the entire layout, including the pictures, which immediately jumped out at him. One of the photos in the article was of Tim Foley, the head of the Arizona militia, whose name does not appear in the text. More than anything, Moreno was surprised that Relotius had so persistently claimed that the militia, which he had allegedly been able to join for a time, refused to be photographed or filmed. But Foley is a very public figure. He appeared in the award-winning documentary film "Cartel Land" and makes a part of his living by charging journalists and tourists for a guided tour along the border and letting them immerse themselves in the milieu of the militias.
Moreno wrote an email to the fact-checking department asking about the inconsistencies, but soon he also began hinting to coworkers that something fishy might be going on. But he had no concrete evidence yet and began searching the internet for clues. The next day, Thursday, Nov. 15, the day the magazine was to go to press, he called a fact-checker. They spoke about the story, and Moreno conveyed his doubts. They talked about the fact that the protagonists in the story had already appeared in other, older stories. Still, neither side came away from the conversation with the feeling that there was cause for assuming a deliberate deception -- and no reason to justify possibly pulling the story.
On Friday evening, with the new issue of DER SPIEGEL now having been printed and set for delivery the next day, Moreno spoke with section head Matthias Geyer and informed him that he believed the story contained falsifications. Geyer asked him to put his accusations in writing. On Sunday, Moreno sent an initial list of three questions about Foley's photo and other elements in the story and Relotius was then confronted with those questions. He defended himself brilliantly and cunningly. Indeed, his response was so eloquent, even admitting to imperfections in his work, that Moreno began looking like the troublemaker.
Moreno then took advantage of a reporting trip to the United States to collect even more material against Relotius, but above all to protect himself. He was troubled by the unbearable thought that his own byline was at the top of a story that he considered to be untrue in many parts. Moreno began working on a feature about boxer Floyd Mayweather for the DER SPIEGEL sports department. Also on board was Munich photographer Mirco Taliercio, who had helped arrange a meeting with Mayweather. Moreno and Taliercio are good friends.
Never Seen Him Before
That is why Moreno decided to take him along on the secret second part of his journey: He wanted to visit Tim Foley, the head of the Arizona Border Recon militia, and maybe find Chris Maloof, the man in camouflage clothing called Jaeger in the DER SPIEGEL story. Since both men appeared in the DER SPIEGEL piece, it follows that Claas Relotius must have had contact with both of them, at least if everything was above board. Relotius claimed to have spent entire days and nights in the desert with Jaeger/Maloof. It would be extremely odd if he was unable to remember their time together. Moreno managed to make contact with Foley, who then served as his connection to Maloof.
Moreno and photographer Taliercio drove 770 kilometers from Las Vegas to Arivaca, Arizona, where Foley, alias Nailer, was willing to talk to them for $200 and Moreno showed Foley a picture of Relotius. The video of the encounter is shocking for anyone who may have thought that Claas Relotius was nothing but the reliable, friendly person he had been known as for such a long time. Foley was extremely clear about the fact that he had never seen Relotius before in his life.
The scene was repeated a few days later in a different place, with a different cast of characters. It was on Dec. 4, the day after Relotius had received the email from Janet Foley and the reporter prize for "Child's Play." In Arizona, a bearded man named Chris Maloof was sitting in front of a video camera, the same man who was supposed to be the Chris Jaeger from the DER SPIEGEL story. He even presented his ID to prove his identity.
When shown Relotius' photo, he was even more convincing than Foley: "I've never seen this man before in my life." And yet Relotius had written about Maloof. Relotius wrote, for example, that he had the words "Strength" and "Pride" tattooed on the back of his hands. But Maloof's hands aren't tattooed. Maloof isn't Jaeger. Jaeger doesn't exist. Relotius had never met with either of them.
Relotius' story, his method, was nothing more than rearranging material that wasn't his. Along with some details that he invented. He made use of images, Facebook posts, YouTube videos, and he borrowed material from old newspapers and obscure blogs. He assembled all these pieces and splinters and shreds and crumbs to create his characters. Chris Jaeger, Gayle Gladdis, Neil Becker from Fergus Falls, Nadim and Khalid in Kirkuk, Ahmed and Alin from Aleppo, Mohammed Bwasir from Guantanamo, they were not human beings made of flesh and blood. They only live on paper, and their creator was Claas Relotius. Sometimes he made them sing, sometimes he made them cry and sometimes he had them pray. And if he felt like it, as in "Jaeger's Border," he had his main character shoot into the night with an assault rifle. Because it made such a wonderful ending to his work of fiction.