This week, the star reporter of the German magazine
Der Spiegel was fired after it was revealed that he had been fabricating stories for several years. Here, Michele Anderson and Jake Krohn expose the many inaccuracies in his article about their town, Fergus Falls, Minn.
In February 2017, my husband and I attended a concert at our local theater, and were sipping some wine in the lobby before the show started. Several people came up to us at separate times excitedly, and asked, ‘did you meet the German guy yet?!’
I hadn’t, but my spider senses perked up when I heard that he worked for Der Spiegel, a magazine based in Hamburg, and that he was writing about the state of rural America in the wake of Trump’s presidency.
I know I’m not the only rural advocate and citizen that is wary about the anthropological gaze on rural America in the wake of the 2016 elections, and has struggled with how or whether to respond to the sudden attention and questions, when before we really didn’t matter to mass media at all.
Suddenly we do matter, but only because everyone wants to be the hero pundit that cracks the code of the current rural psyche. 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.
With that in mind, I was slightly reassured to hear that Der Spiegel’s journalist, Claas Relotius, had met some of the people that could represent the true complexities of Fergus Falls — people that love a good intellectual debate about both local and national issues, people that own small businesses, who grew up here but also had global experience and perspectives, and people who collaborate consistently across political lines because the simple reality of living in a small town is that everyone at some point has to work together if they want anything to function properly.
Knowing that Relotius’s purpose was likely to focus on a few of our many conservative voters, I still had an ounce of faith in journalism. Maybe, just maybe, since he was a professional, award-winning, international journalist and was spending not one day here but several weeks, he would craft an interesting, nuanced story about how we all somehow manage to coexist with each other in Trump’s America without burning each other’s houses down.
But I also had a distinct gut feeling that his portrayal of this town could go very, very wrong.
What happened is beyond what I could have ever imagined: An article titled ‘Where they pray for Trump on Sundays,’ and endless pages of an insulting, if not hilarious, excuse for journalism.
Not only did Relotius’s ‘exposé’ on Fergus Falls make unrecognizable movie-like characters out of the people in my town that I interact with on a daily basis, but its very basic lack of truth and its bizarrely bleak portrayal of the place I love left a very sick, unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach.
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.’
Relotius has received accolades for his daring quest to live among us for several weeks. And yet, he reported on very little actual truth about Fergus Falls life. In 7,300 words he really only got our town’s population and average annual temperature correct, and a few other basic things, like the names of businesses and public figures, things that a child could figure out in a Google search. The rest is uninhibited fiction (even as sloppy as citing an incorrect figure of citywide 70.4 percent electoral support for Trump, when the actual number was 62.6 percent), which begs the question of why Der Spiegel even invested in Relotius’s three week trip to the US, whether they should demand their money back from him, and what kind of institutional breakdown led to the supposedly world-class Der Spiegel fact-checking team completely dropping the ball on this one.
There are so many lies here, that my friend Jake and I had to narrow them down to top 11 most absurd lies (we couldn’t do just 10) for the purpose of this article. We’ve been working on it since the article came out in spring of 2017, but had to set it aside to attend to our lives (raising a family, managing a nonprofit organization, etc.) before coming back to it this fall, and finally wrapped things up a few weeks ago, just in time to hear today that Relotius was fired when he was exposed for fabricating many of his articles.
We hope that our version of this story makes you think twice the next time you read an article claiming some kind of intellectual authority over rural identity, and that you’ll come and see for yourself what Fergus Falls is all about (we don’t mind a little tourism boost every now and then — although we’re doing pretty well attracting artists from all around the nation, among other things).
1. The Sleeping Dragon
‘After three and a half hours, the bus bends from the highway to a narrow, sloping street, rolling towards a dark forest that looks like dragons live in it. At the entrance, just before the station, there is a sign with the American stars and stripes banner, which reads: ‘Welcome to Fergus Falls, home of damn good folks.’
Fergus Falls is located on the prairie — which means our landscape mostly consists of tall grass and lakes. While we have trees, we do not have any distinct forests in our city limits, and definitely not on the route that the bus Relotius would have taken from the Twin Cities. And sadly, our welcome sign is quite mundane in its greeting.
2. The gun-toting, virgin City Administrator
‘Andrew Bremseth would like to marry soon, he says, but he was never together with a woman. He has also never seen the ocean.’
Relotius chose to put the spotlight on Fergus Falls city administrator, Andrew Bremseth, as the main character in his article. We have spoken to Bremseth at length regarding the parts of the story that feature him, and Relotius got three facts right:
- Bremseth’s age (27)
- That he grew up in Fergus Falls
- That he went to university in South Dakota