Back on December 19th, 2018, the iconic German magazine, Der Spiegel, announced that one of their own- Claas Relotious- had fabricated stories that were published by the magazine. Der Spiegel prides itself on the number of fact-checkers they employ and the rigor through which articles have to endure before publishing. Obviously, someone was asleep at the wheel, or were they?
The magazine made some headlines itself back in 2018 when it depicted President Trump holding the decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty on the front cover. Other covers have depicted Russian president Vladimir Putin with Trump’s hair. Some of their articles come with headlines like, “The Conceited World Power” in reference to the United States.
So what exactly got Mr. Relotius in hot water? Several things, actually. He told the story of a woman who travels the United States getting her jollies from watching executions. By the lack of executions, she doesn’t do much traveling. In fact, she doesn’t exist. There was the story of the Yemeni man “wrongly imprisoned” at Guantanamo, tortured and held in solitary confinement for 14 years. The problem? No such person exists. In a 7,300 word essay, he relates his experience in Fergus, Minnesota- small town that voted for Trump where allegedly below the “Welcome to Fergus” sign at city limits there also hangs a non-existent sign saying “Mexicans Keep Out.” There were other falsities in the Fergus story that should have been red lights for the vaunted fact-checkers at the publication. Does anyone honestly believe that the town’s theater is still playing “American Sniper” years after its release, and is available on cable today?
There was also the story about an alleged vigilante group that patrols the southern border with Mexico. Despite attributing actions and quotes to members of the group, the esteemed Mr. Relotius never contacted nor interviewed anyone in the group. In fact, his co-writer warned the magazine about some inconsistencies, but they turned a blind eye.
Therefore, the question is why Der Spiegel turned a blind eye. To hear Relotius explain the situation, he felt the need to fabricate stories (and people) in order to remain relevant. He apparently felt pressured to continue to produce articles to the level that got him awards from European journalists and CNN (Note: the fact CNN singled him out should have been a red flag).
The Washington Post weighed in on the controversy by first cataloging his misdeeds, saying he was wrong, then changing the subject about how some “right wing people” are weaponizing this case to prove that “fake news” exists. It is true that the German ultra-Right Wing party, AfD, has noted this incident. But are they wrong? What can be more “fake news” than outright lies, fabrications and creation of people from one’s imagination? Does the fiction with nebulous grains of truth from the pen of Relotius now count as fact?
Instead, the failures of Der Spiegel are not the results of a reporter trying to remain relevant, fact-checkers giving a prized reporter the benefit of the doubt, or any other such crap written thus far. The failures are due to nothing short of European elitism when it comes to the United States. Der Spiegel sent Relotius off in search of the America of their demented visions.
To elites that occupy the centers of journalism in Europe, they view the United States no different than their political predecessors in days gone by who were afraid to relinquish power to the people. To them, we are a venal, vulgar, mediocre and inauthentic class of people. The election of Donald Trump confirmed this in their minds. Relotius was a dutiful soldier in the cause who happened to be caught.
This anti-American prejudice, so prevalent in many Der Speigel, and other European elitist magazines, pretends to be high-minded critique. He set off to confirm all those negative stereotypes Europeans have of Americans. Along the way, he was showered with accolades. But his stereotypical caricatures of the United States disguised as journalism are no different than you or I saying that half the German population is a gaggle of goose-stepping Nazi sympathizers. This may actually be closer to objective truth than anything Relotius depicted in his articles.
This is a magazine that in May, 2018 stole the memory of those who struggled against Nazism to call for a “resistance against America” as if the America under Trump is the new Third Reich. Meanwhile, the real former Third Reich is dealing with rampant acts of anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, the real former Third Reich which was utterly defeated and whose people were freed from the clutches of Nazism by the hands of countless dead American soldiers and whose country was rebuilt with the largesse of the United States in the aftermath of World War II now lecture the United States and depict the country that saved their butts as “crude, vile, venal, and bellicose.”
Somehow, you know Relotius will come out of this just fine. He is, after all, only 33. And you know the magazine will do the inevitable soul-searching and house cleaning, lay low for a bit, then resort to their old ways. And rest assured, the American mainstream media will rally around Relotius as a fine journalist who felt pressured in this age of Trump and his apparently justified criticisms of what passes for journalism these days. After all, they often point out that seven journalists died in America (five in a shooting rampage in Maryland- the shooter held a grudge against the newspaper-, and two covering a storm in North Carolina). Move over first responders… journalists are dying out there because of Trump.
In the end, we know that Relotius simply fed Der Spiegel the vision of America that confirmed the stereotypes in the offices of the editors. This was not malfeasance by fact checkers. This was European elitism portraying itself as objective journalism. Der Spiegel published at least 14 articles of fabricated material by this “journalist.” What does that say about them other than they should check their snottiness and self-righteous moral superiority?
But, don’t expect that from the European elitists. Latte is now served.