News came out recently that a Der Spiegel writer, Claas Relotius, fabricated a number of stories for the German magazine over the years. He helped craft around 60 articles over the last seven years and enjoyed so much success there that in 2014 he was awarded with the title of CNN Journalist of the Year.
While this might seem like distant news to us in the United States, Relotius’ work often touched on American news, which means he may have had a significant influence on the creation of German and pan-European thought (the publication has a circulation of 840,000 per week).
One of the stories that caught my attention was one that Relotius did on the politics of the small Minnesota town of Fergus Falls. Relotius spent time living in the rural town in early 2017, not long after Donald Trump won the election. One of the more unsettling false claims made in the story was that a sign greeted visitors to the town which read “Mexicans Keep Out”, but this was hardly the only fabrication that would appear in the story.
A couple of authors who live in Fergus Falls came up with a list of eleven rather startling, unsubstantiated claims made by Relotius in his article, one of which was that the town was a Trump haven and supported Trump at a rate of 70.4% (in reality, it was 62.6%). Among other debunked claims were:
- The young, lonely city administrator walked around with a Beretta at work and enjoyed eighteenth-century French philosophy.
- The townspeople liked the movie American Sniper so much that it continued to be played at the local movie theater two years after its original run in 2015.
- A woman named Maria Rodriguez owned the local Don Pablo’s Restaurant, had kidney disease, and became a Trump supporter due to expenses under Obamacare. Also, that she had a (non-existent) high school son named Israel.
- A rather involved, western-themed party that no one can seem to remember.
What’s staggering about this is the sheer distortion of the facts provided by Relotius. This wasn’t a case of simply mistaken identities or exaggerating here and there, but outright falsehoods.
According to Der Spiegel, Relotius “falsified his articles on a grand scale and even invented characters, deceiving both readers and his colleagues. This has been uncovered as a result of tips, internal research and, ultimately, a comprehensive confession by the editor himself.”
What is the effect that such fake news might have on influencing public opinion? If you connect the dots in the story about Fergus Falls, they all seem to paint the town as a kind of eccentric Trump-loving wasteland, the kind that seems to play on a variety of stereotypes that foreigners might take at face value.
We really should question how much this kind of article – or any other articles by this author – influenced the winds of public discourse in Germany and throughout Europe as a result. Did it make any European leaders less inclined to work with Trump, thinking that his followers were intolerant, crazy racists? Did it change the way Europeans wanted to deal with the U.S. in light of the sample of “fly-over country” citizens portrayed in the story? I think it would be a stretch to think that the faked articles created by Relotius did not have a negative effect on the U.S. or Trump as a result.
I should point out that this happened at Der Spiegel, the so-called “world’s largest fact checking operation”. Back in 2010, the publication had around 80 full-time people checking facts and doing related work. One scratches one’s head wondering what kind of effectiveness they have if a single journalist can pass off over a dozen stories with faked content.
Not long ago, President Trump was maligned for calling the media the “enemy of the people”. While that may be hyperbole, it is definitely possible to see the far-reaching, harmful socio-political effects by even a single journalist who decides to go off the rails to pursue some untruthful objective.
Once false news has been published, it is difficult, if not impossible, to restore views to the status quo. People who read Relotius’ article in early 2017 have already had their opinions affected, and have probably voted in elections and argued for this or that policy.
So how many other journalists are out there doing this very thing? We only hear about those who are caught before they fade into our collective memories, but their damage has already been done. If not enemies of the people, then they are exploiters of people’s trust and distorters of reality.