New sources reveal true extent of Der Spiegel forgery scandal

Daniel Wighton
Daniel Wighton - [email protected] • 21 Dec, 2018 Updated Fri 21 Dec 2018 12:28 CEST
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For the past week the German media has been rocked by the Claas Relotius scandal. With Relotius today agreeing to hand back his awards, the sheer scale of his lies and fabrications is slowly becoming clear.

p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px For years, Der Spiegel journalist Claas Relotius was one of the most celebrated and awarded journalists in Germany. His became known across the globe for his international investigative journalism, winning several accolades in the process. 

While whispers had existed for years about the 33-year-old journalist, it wasn’t until his admission of guilt this week that the extent of Relotius’ ethical breaches has become clear. 

As reported by The Local on Wednesday, Relotius “made up stories and invented protagonists” in at least 14 of the articles he wrote for the magazine’s print and online editions. The magazine, which is known internationally for its unique fact checking department, has warned that other publications may be affected. 

Reloitis today indicated he would be handing back the German Reporter of the Year awards he won for his investigative journalism. 

CNN also indicated it would be stripping him of two prizes they awarded him for his reporting. 

On Thursday, Medium published a story outlining the fabrications Relotius made during his time in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, reporting on rural America’s apparently unwavering support for President Trump. 

Relotius’ original story - which ran under the banner “One month with people who pray for Donald Trump on Sundays” - was published in 2017. The much-lauded article described a town which was supposedly like many rural centres across the country which had delivered the 2016 for the underdog Trump. It was interwoven with a diverse blend of characters apparently only linked by their love of President Trump. 

The Medium story was prepared by Fergus Falls residents Michele Anderson and Jake Krohn, both of whom had briefly encountered Relotius during his time in their hometown.

The article lists eleven lies and fabrications made by the journalist about Fergus Falls, ranging from the dense, sprawling forest and rolling hills that encircle the town (it’s on a prairie) to an apparent love for the film American Sniper, which Relotius falsely said has played to full audiences at the local cinema for the past two years. 

Anderson and Krohn said they were initially welcoming of Relotius, particularly as he seemed not to be purely focused on the town’s conservative Trump supporters and apparently sought to paint a full picture of Fergus Falls. As time went on however, they became perplexed at Relotius’ apparent reluctance to seriously engage with the town’s residents. 

Then, when the story was published, they realized that Relotius had little regard for the truth at all. 

“Unfortunately now, even if it is in German, there is false historical documentation of our community that is not only completely wrong, but that our faces, our landscapes and our community’s name were used for, in service of perpetuating an ugly and exaggerated stereotype during a time when we, in both urban and rural places, need to find ways to understand each other more than to be divided,” they said. 

Relotius’ now former colleague Juan Moreno told the German press he’d suspected for years that Relotius may be lying, but was reluctant to come forward due to the award-winning reporter’s high standing.

“The industry is so small - word would have got around that Moreno ’couldn’t bear that a brilliant reporter like Relotius is better than him’,” Moreno said. 

“His stories all came together brilliantly. His reporting in recent years has moved in the direction of short stories, of literature.”

Moreno suspected Relotius years ago, with his initial attempts to share his concerns rebuffed by his colleagues. He worked hard to out Relotius' forgeries, contacting several of his previous sources only to be told that their quotes were misrepresented - or that they hadn't met Relotius at all. 

Relotius pictured in 2014/ DPA

In their apology published yesterday, Der Spiegel wrote “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.”

Der Spiegel has now thanked Moreno, acknowledging the crucial role he played in shedding light on Relotius and his history of forgery. 

The Relotius scandal has come at a bad time for the media. Across the globe faith in the press is wavering, with US President Trump and others waging a war on what they like to call the “fake news media”. 

Right-wing groups have seized upon the story, citing it as evidence of a widespread culture of lies and fabrication in the media. 

Germany’s right-wing Alternative for Germany (AFD) political party has long said that the German press picks and chooses which stories to report on based on ideology. 

Given that Relotius’ targets were often one-dimensional Trump supporters who scoffed at big city liberals or right-leaning individuals fearful of immigrants only adds to the claims of right-wing groups. 

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Daniel Wighton 2018/12/21 12:28

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