The Disgraced German Journalist Is a Warning About the State of American Journalism

Free image via Pixabay https://pixabay.com/en/fake-fake-news-media-laptop-1903774/

Free image via Pixabay https://pixabay.com/en/fake-fake-news-media-laptop-1903774/

On December 20, something approaching a bombshell went off in the world of journalism. The German magazine Der Spiegel announced that its superstar reporter, Claas Relotius, had been fired for fabricating story. Relotius, who’d been honored, naturally, as CNN’s Journalist of the Year, was found to have fabricated all or part of 14 of the 60 stories he did for Der Spiegel.

The proximate cause of his downfall was a Conservatives in the Mist“-style trip Der Speigel sent him on in 2017 to Fergus, MN, to try and explain to readers in Germany just what life was like among the scheiss auslander and untermenschen of rural America.

As it turned out, the piece that appeared in the respected German weekly magazine Der Spiegel a month later was even worse than she could have imagined. Not only did it rely on stock stereotypes of provincial, gun-toting conservatives, but many of the details were blatantly false.

Relotius wrote that city administrator Andrew Bremseth had never been with a woman and had never been to the ocean, claims that were easily debunked by a photo on Bremseth’s Facebook page that showed him standing next to the ocean with his long-term girlfriend. Relotius mentioned looking through the windows of a local diner and seeing a power plant billowing out steam, which would have been impossible since the plant in question is hidden behind a tall hill more than two miles away. And he described a sign at the entrance to town that said, “Mexicans Keep Out” — something that community members didn’t recall ever seeing.

Among them: Relotius had claimed that the local movie theater was still playing “American Sniper” more than two years after it came out, which was quickly disproved with an email to the theater’s manager. He described traveling into town on a “narrow, sloping street, rolling towards a dark forest that looks like dragons live in it,” even though Fergus Falls is located on the prairie and there are no forests within city limits. In another passage, he wrote that local high school students on a bus trip to New York had skipped the Statue of Liberty in favor of visiting Trump Tower. But Anderson and Krohn found no evidence that the trip had taken place.

Most alarmingly, Relotius appeared to have used real people’s names and identities, then invented details about their lives. He told the story of Maria Rodriguez, the owner of a local Mexican restaurant who had become a Trump supporter after the Affordable Care Act made it more expensive to treat her kidney disease. The real Maria Rodriguez turned out to be a waitress at the restaurant. She had never had kidney disease and was never interviewed by Relotius, she said. Similarly, her son — described in the piece as a 15-year-old named Israel, but in actuality a college sophomore named Pablo — told Krohn and Anderson that the story that Relotius had weaved about his life in Fergus Falls and the prejudice he had encountered at the local high school was completely false.

Many of the made-up details reflected certain prevailing stereotypes about rural America. Bremseth, the city administrator, wore a gun to work, disparaged the idea of a female president and was the only person in the city who subscribed to national publications, Relotius wrote. But according to Krohn and Anderson’s thorough takedown, none of it was true.

The investigation into Relotius revealed that there had been complaints about him in the past but his editors supported him. Why would this be so? The Washington Post’s Charles Lane:

The Kelley scandal, like the 2003 revelation of Jayson Blair’s frauds at the New York Times, disproved my belief that Stephen Glass’s fakes at the New Republic (in the 1990s, when I was the magazine’s editor) might be the last. Surely computer-aided fact-checking would deter fraud, I thought.

However, the unmasking of Der Spiegel’s erstwhile ace, Claas Relotius, as a phony on Dec. 20, mere days after he collected his fourth German Reporter Prize, shows yet again that my hope was naive. Reporters keep inventing stories and getting prizes for them.

If you’ve spent any time in Germany, you’ll immediately recognize the buffoonish stereotype of Americans that a substantial portion of German media pushes daily. During the Cold War, Der Speigel and some other “New Yorker”-equivalent parroted any Soviet propaganda hostile to America, not because they were communists, though a lot of them have been since revealed to have been on the Stasi payroll, but because the were angry and bitter about being dependent upon an inferior species for their freedom. More from Lane:

But it also reflected bias: Contempt for American culture has a long history among the continental European cognoscenti, the sort of people who read Der Spiegel and write for it.

Negative caricatures of the United States have taken hold in broader German public opinion, too, especially since a stereotypical Ugly American, Donald Trump, reached the White House — but well before that, too.

The United States’ favorability rating is lower in Germany than in any other large European democracy, and has been since the latter half of the Obama administration, according to data compiled by the Pew Research Center.

It was under President Barack Obama, after all, that Der Spiegel called the U.S. Embassy in Berlin “a nest of espionage.”

Germany today finds itself in a galling situation: It depends, for both military protection and export markets, on a country — the United States — that many Germans, including influential figures in academia, the media, business and politics, regard with ambivalence bordering on disdain.

Der Spiegel’s contribution to mutual understanding was to publish Claas Relotius, even though the magazine’s deputy editor in chief described anti-Americanism as “deeply alien to me” in his published response to a letter of complaint about Relotius from the U.S. ambassador in Berlin.

In fact, our fabulous ambassador to German, Richard Grenell, has been flogging Der Spiegel over its systemic and virulent anti-Americanism:

Since the nomination of President Trump we have seen a parade of stories that fall into the genre #FakeNews. Around the time of inauguration, TIME magazine reported that the bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. had been removed from the White House. Since that time we’ve seen a virtual tsunami of utterly bullsh** stories, stories that seemed fake when they appeared and were proven fake shortly thereafter, about President Trump, his appointees, and the operations of the administration. One of the biggest ones has been the utterly slavish devotion by the media to the veracity of the dossier produced under contract to the Clinton campaign.

These stories have all had one unifying feature. They cut in exactly the same direction–against Trump. They all reinforce memes and bigotry about Trump and his supporters and the GOP. Unlike Relotius, however, these stories rely upon unnamed “senior officials,” who, in many cases, give reason to doubt that they even exist, and they can’t be investigated. When these stories are disproven, no one is punished. Rather the entire media world goes to the mattresses to defend people who are concoct the stories. Monumental liars, like Brian Williams and Dan Rather and Brian Ross are quietly recycled.

The Post’s Lane is right about how Relotius came to be. His editors held very strong political biases and they promoted people who shared and reinforced those biases. Relotius only got caught because he flew too close to the sun. Our editors and reporters are no different. You can bet that the major newsrooms, particularly a CNN that employs Acosta and Sciutto and Lemon, are awash with people who are making stuff up and getting rewarded for it.

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