“It wasn’t about the next big thing. It was the fear of failure.”
That’s what Claas Relotius, a journalist for Der Spiegel, Germany’s most prestigious newspaper, explained to an editor last week as his career came to a screeching halt.
Relotius was referring to his years-long habit of writing stories that were sometimes partially, sometimes entirely invented, but always printed as fact. He faked quotes, made up people, and imagined scenes, many of which depicted life in the United States.
Now his purported fear of failure has created the biggest news scandal in post-war Germany, as the Times described it (paywall), a scandal that’s being politicized by far-right extremists in the country, and, arguably, US ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell.
The beginning of the end
According to a Der Spiegel account, the Relotius affair began to unfold in early December, when the reporter received an email from the US:
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?
The co-author on that piece had already been raising flags about Relotius, which were repeatedly dismissed, but editors eventually started to doubt the award-winning reporter’s accounts.
The story gained international attention on Dec. 19, when two residents of Fergus Falls, Minnesota, published a story that methodically documented falsehoods in a feature about their hometown that Relotius wrote in 2017. In their piece, published on Medium, the authors outlined numerous blatant fabrications. For example, next to the city’s welcome sign, Relotius had described a fictitious second sign that read “Mexicans Keep Out.”
Relotius got a few things right about one city administrator who appeared in the story—his age, where he grew up and where he went to college, the authors noted. However, they continued:
Everything else, from the claim that Bremseth carries a Beretta 9mm on his person while at work (“I would never ever wear a gun to work, and I don’t even own a Beretta.”), his disdain for a potential female president, his comment that Trump would “kick ass” (“Never said that”), and even his college-era preference for 18th century French philosophers (“Never read them”) and the New England Patriots (“I’m not a fan of them at all”), is complete fiction. Says Bremseth, “Anyone who knows anything about me, this [portrayal] is the furthest from what I stand for.”
Der Spiegel is apparently still trying to quantify how many bogus or mostly bogus stories slipped through. So far, according to the Associated Press, Relotius has confessed to veering into fiction in at least 14 features.
A gift to the far-right
The media has survived crises like this before. Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer prize for her 1980 story on an eight-year-old heroin addict who didn’t exist, and editors at The New Republic and Rolling Stone were fooled by Stephen Glass 20 years ago. However, this is a particularly sensitive moment for journalism. In Germany, as in the US and other countries, populist far-right groups have been accusing the media of pushing a liberal agenda and publishing “fake news,” as Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed. At the same time, actual fake news designed to bring further polarization to public debate has flooded social media sites like Facebook.
“Spiegelgate” is a gift to far-right groups who question the media’s credibility. The Times writes that “members of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, or AfD, describe mainstream outlets as the ‘Lügenpresse,’ or ‘lying press,’ a term used by the Nazis in the 1920s before they rose to power.”
Party members have wasted no time in weaponizing the Der Spiegel news in messages to their followers on social media. For instance, as the Times also reported, one AfD lawmaker tweeted: “Der Spiegel, the self-declared standard-bearer that loves to bad-mouth Trump, AfD and others, delivered Fake News for years.”
The AfD isn’t alone in calling attention to the scandal. On Friday, Richard Grenfell, the US ambassador to Germany, wrote a letter to Der Spiegel, since published on its site, calling for an independent investigation of Relotius’ reporting. He also suggested that the young journalist was operating in an environment of “institutional bias.” In other words, the problem is not one rogue reporter.
“Editors, fact-checkers, and those in leadership clearly allowed this atmosphere and bias to flourish,” he Grenfell. He contends that Der Spiegel journalists routinely publish stories about the US without calling the embassy to check information.
“We must not be meek”
Over the weekend, Der Spiegel announced it would press charges against Relotius and review processes in its once-venerable fact-checking department. Though Relotius characterized his mistakes as the consequences of his own pressure to succeed, that would hardly explain why—as was discovered during this investigation into his work—he recently set up a crowdfunding campaign for two Syrian orphans, when only one exists, and is apparently pocketing donated money.
After the controversy surfaced last week, Der Spiegel vowed to continue work that holds the powerful accountable. Ullrich Fichtner, who will be one of three editors-in-chief at the paper next month, told the Times: “Yes, journalism is on the defensive, with an economic crisis and with all the attacks on us every day. But we must not be meek.”