- Markus Somm of the Swiss Baseler Zeitung (BaZ) here has an interesting commentary on why Spiegel and CNN-award wining journalist Claas Relotius had been able to get away with writing totally made up stories for as long as he did.
Claas Relotius is the journalist who traveled to rural Fergus Falls, Minnesota, immediately after the inauguration of then president-elect Donald Trump in order to find out why rural America voted so heavily in favor of Trump. The reason in a nutshell, according to Relotius: because rural Americans are uneducated, blindly patriotic, gun-bearing, narrow-minded rednecks.
In his article he provided numerous examples to back it up. The problem, however: he made it all up! Today it has arguably become the biggest journalistic scandal in at least 10 years. Both Relotius and Spiegel have been disgraced.
Further investigation uncovered that Relotius had been writing phony news for years. The BAZ asks: How could this have happened and why hadn’t he been exposed much earlier?
What makes this scandal all the more oppressive to the media, however, is the fact that Relotius did so for years without ever being discovered. No documentation expert and no editor-in-chief noticed anything. Indeed, Relotius was flooded with journalist prizes for his many works of fiction.”
What was even more embarrassing is the fact that he wrote for Spiegel, probably one of the most renowned news magazines worldwide, and one that bragged about its investigative and fact-checking prowess. Somehow, quality control got thrown overboard along the way.
Agenda over truth
The Markus Somm at the BAZ suspects much of it had to do with the hard left-wing leanings of the Spiegel editorial board, who loathe conservative, rural Americans. The BAZ asks:
If Spiegel, left-liberal, often self-righteous, had been a bit more pluralistic, if there had been more people on its editorial board who were conservative – would Relotius have not been uncovered sooner?
In BAZ’s view, the answer to that question is ‘yes’:
The fact that he became a world star, has a lot to do with the prejudices the Relotius virtuoso served. Refugees are basically better people, war is a misery which is mostly blamed on the West, progressive people live in the city, the distressed in the countryside, and Trump is a disaster. Relotius wrote what they wanted to hear, he lied about what his superiors and colleagues already believed, and that’s why they felt so comfortable in affirming that reality seemed to conform to their prejudice. Nowhere is this perhaps more apparent than in a report on Fergus Falls.”
Relotius spent several weeks in Fergus Falls in order to gain a clear picture of the small town’s residents and how they lived. But what Relotius found was something in complete contradiction to the prejudices spread in Germany about rural America.
He just could not possibly return to Germany and tell Spiegel editors and America-loathing German readers: Hey, rural Americans are pretty hip and normal folks, and then ask Spiegel to reimburse all his travel expenses and pay for his fact-finding labor. So he just fabricated everything they wanted to hear.