Looking back now, it should have been obvious that Claas Relotius was ginning up his stories for the German magazine Der Spiegel, stories for which he won award after award until he was fired on Wednesday.
In 2017, he said he spent a month in Fergus Falls, Minn., getting to know the people who overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump.
If you spend a month in Fergus Falls, you don’t need to make up stories about its people. And it’s not like the people of Fergus Falls wouldn’t notice.
They did. So Relotius is out of work.
“Claas Relotius committed his deception intentionally, methodically,” Der Spiegel said, claiming he made up dialogue in his stories with people he never talked to and “composite characters of people who actually did exist but whose stories Relotius had fabricated.”
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.
He fabricated stories like Neil Becker, who works in a coal mine that doesn’t exist in Fergus Falls. Neither does Neil Becker.
None of this would have been exposed if not for Michele Anderson and Jake Krohn, of Fergus Falls, who spent a year researching the characterization of their corner of paradise and the reporter who wanted to understand rural America, one small town at a time.
“There are only two things those writers seem to have concluded or are able to pitch to their editors — we are either backwards, living in the past and have our heads up our asses, or we’re like dumb, endearing animals that just need a little attention in order to keep us from eating the rest of the world alive,” they wrote in their Medium.com article exposing the fraud this week.
Don’t mess with Fergus Falls, freund.
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“There’s really nothing like this feeling — knowing that people in another country have read about the place I call home and are shaking their heads over their coffee in disgust, sharing the article on Facebook and Twitter, and making comments on the online article like ‘creepy,’ and ‘these are the people who don’t believe electricity exists.’”
They ranked 11 of his lies, including the claim the sign to the entrance of town says “Welcome to Fergus Falls, home of damn good folks.” It is. But it doesn’t.
Here’s Claas’ description (translated) of the city administrator.
The person who knows the people in Fergus Falls best, the first residents I talked to told me the most important job at City Hall and always carry a gun.
His room is a room on the ground floor, in the entrance is a stuffed wild boar. He himself sits behind a desk, on it runs a small TV. It’s a morning in late January, Donald Trump talks on CNN, and Andrew Bremseth, a guy with boyish features and a name tag on his chest, talks about liberation.
“Fergus Falls has been waiting for Trump,” he says, “Obama was there for bankers, gays and students, but not for ordinary people, and that’s over: Trump will kick everyone in the ass.”
Andrew Bremseth, dark blond hair, rolling accent, is 27 years old, the youngest City Administrator in Minnesota. He wears a gray short-sleeved shirt with a holster clinging to his belt. His pistol Beretta, caliber 9 millimeters, gave him his father for Christmas, he says. He also owns two rifles at home, so he shoots wild geese, deer and sometimes even wolves. Obama and Clinton wanted to ban weapons without a gun license, but people here, says Bremseth, “love hunting, they love beautiful weapons, and they hate Washington regulations.”
70.4 percent of the voters of Fergus Falls have chosen Trump. Bremseth hanged the election results in his office as proof. He does not like talking about the sign that had been in front of the entrance a few days ago, “Mexicans Keep Out.” He himself did not see it with his own eyes, he says. It was probably just stupid kids, he says, “Mexicans are very welcome here.”
He got the age right. And where he went to school. And that he’s a native of Fergus Falls. The rest? Lies.
Perhaps the oddest fiction in a list of many is Relotius’ depiction of Bremseth as someone who “would like to marry soon…but he has not yet been in a serious relationship with a woman. He has also never been to the ocean.”
We can attest that Bremseth has indeed been to the ocean, by his account, “many times” and is currently happily involved in a multi-year, cohabitational relationship with a woman named Amber. In fact, here’s a picture of the two of them in front of, all things, an ocean.
Relotius also decided he could get away with telling his readers that Bremseth is the only Fergus Falls resident that subscribes to national publications, painting the community as the perfect villain around which to frame the rest of his horror story about rural America.
No, the town is not obsessed with American Sniper (it played for one month in 2015, Anderson and Krohn said), the library is not a former kindergarten and there was never an iPad for beginners class, there are no armored doors at the town hall, there was no Super Bowl viewing party at the pizza shop. And on and on.
Anderson says she would’ve liked to have been in the article. But he blew her off when she tried to talk with him.
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And that’s the thing: There were actually interesting things — true things — about the people of Fergus Falls that would’ve made his story sing.
As a resident that moved here 7 years ago, single, at age 29 from Portland, Oregon, with deep family roots in the area, I would have happily taken him to my favorite coffee shop, where they serve locally crafted Stumbeanos coffee and a cappuccino as good as any coastal city.
Or to my office at Springboard for the Arts, where we provide programs that help artists in the region make a living, and directly address the future of rural communities and culture through events like the Rural Arts and Culture Summit, and our Hinge Artist Residency at Fergus Falls’ former state mental institution.
And I would have willingly poured my heart out to him about the night I watched the elections at Union Pizza, where I saw my colleagues and friends slouched over in tears of dread and sadness when we realized that Trump would be our next president.
Yes, we have problems with racism here that he could have used real accounts of (the sign he mentions, “Mexicans Keep Out,” as far as we’ve asked other members of the community, was not seen by anyone else, and would have certainly generated a significant community discussion), but I would also have made sure he got the story of Fergus Falls residents who proudly attended the women’s marches in St. Paul or D.C., and displayed Black Lives Matters signs in our yards or buttons on our jackets, people who mentor immigrants and refugees in the region, people who grow their own food and bike everywhere in order to protect the environment and keep their families healthy, people who have chosen the simplicity rural life as a protest against the often extravagant necessities of city living.
Too late now, of course. Relotius is out of a job and his reputation is shot all the way to Pelican Rapids.
The article, however, lies and all, is still online.
Der Spiegel says it has added notes to Relotius’ articles, indicating they will not be changed until its investigation is completed. If there’s one attached to the Fergus Falls article, one only sees it after one pays a buck-and-a-half to read it.