As It Happens

These Minnesotans debunked a disgraced German reporter's article about their town

When Michele Anderson first heard that a German journalist Claas Relotius was writing about her small Minnesota town in February 2017, she was suspicious — and rightly so. The journalist has now been fired from for fabricating his articles.

German magazine Der Spiegel has fired Claas Relotius for fabricating stories on 'a grand scale'

Michele Anderson and Jake Krohn of Fergus Falls, Minn., made it their mission to debunk lies written in an article by now-fired Der Spiegel journalist Claas Relotius. (Submitted by Michele Anderson )
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Transcript

When Michele Anderson first heard that a German journalist was writing about her small Minnesota town in February 2017, she was suspicious — and rightly so.

On Wednesday, the German magazine Der Spiegel said in a statement that it fired award-winning journalist Claas Relotius for fabricating his stories on "a grand scale." His fabrications were exposed by his colleague Juan Moreno.

Der Spiegel said Relotius, who had been at the magazine since 2011 and had written over 60 articles, fabricated stories that have been nominated for or won journalism awards. He admitted that 14 articles are at least in part fabrications.

Among the fabricated articles is the one about Anderson's town, Fergus Falls, Minn.

After reading the 2017 article, Anderson teamed up with another local resident, Jake Krohn, and spent a year debunking Relotius' claims. They have now published their findings on Medium.

Anderson spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about what they found out. Here is part of their conversation.

When you heard that [Relotius] had been fired for making things up, what did you think? 

I was very surprised. We kind of thought that our story was just a small example of kind of lazy journalism. We didn't realize that we were about to get wrapped up in a huge scandal. 

A screenshot of the article 'Where they pray for Trump on Sundays' by Claas Relotius. German newspaper Der Spiegel said this article about Fergus Falls, Minn., is among the fabricated articles. (spiegel.de)

What was the purpose of his report about Fergus Falls? 

He specifically chose to come here right after Trump's inauguration. 

So he did share — with other folks, not with me — that he was kind of looking for just what the story is behind the communities that vote more on the conservative side and specifically for Trump. 

The article came out entitled "Where They Pray For Trump On Sundays."

He describes the bus ride in, the bend in the highway. He writes beautifully. "The dark forest that looks like dragons might live there." And this sign that says "Welcome to Fergus Falls, home of damn good folks." All right let's pick that apart. How many things are wrong in that statement? 

It's all wrong and I agree it is kind of beautiful writing. He'd be a good fiction writer.

But we're on the prairie, so we have trees here but not woods. There is no sign that says: "Home to damn good folks." We just have a welcome sign that says "Welcome to Fergus Falls."

Even the most small details that he could have had fun writing about that would be true, he didn't bother, and even said things like American Sniper was still playing at the movie theater even though it had been out for two years. 

He'd be a good fiction writer. - Michele Anderson

Your city administrator ... was the key character, Andrew Bremseth, who is apparently packing a Beretta 9mm on his person while at work and loved 18th-century French philosophers and the New England Patriots, none of which is true. 

But oddly enough [Relotius] declared that [Bremseth] had never been with a woman and he had never been to an ocean. 

Among all the other things that were completely wrong about this man, what was wrong with that statement? 

I felt terrible for Andrew. 

Even if it was real, that's such personal information, and then the fact that it was made up. 

But you published a photograph of him and his longtime girlfriend. And guess what, they're beside the ocean, right? 

If De Spiegel did have the fact-checking process that they say they do, they could have found that immediately.

When I read that sentence, I don't know Andrew super well, but I went on Facebook. I was like, "I think he has a girlfriend." And his profile picture is them by the ocean. And that was the day after the article was published. 

Relotius holds his award trophy of the Reemtsma Liberty Award, a German journalist award. Der Spiegel announced on that Relotius had falsified a number of stories in the past years. (Eventpress/Golejewski/EPA)

[Relotius] is reported as saying ... "I am sick and I need to get help." 

In his confession to his employer he said that: "It wasn't because of the next big thing. It was ... my fear of failing. My pressure to not be able to fail got ever bigger the more successful I became."

I mean it's funny and at some level all these distortions, but it's really a sad tale, isn't it? 

It is kind of sad and I think we had a lot of questions today from other journalists about kind of what we think. Does this make us lose hope about journalism overall? And our answer to that is no.

But I think it's also important that Der Spiegel gets to the bottom of how this happened. And I'm not quite ready to feel sorry for him even despite those statements. But it's quite a story in and of itself. 

Written by Sarah Jackson. Produced by Ashley Mak. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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