Award-winning journalist Claas Relotius was outed this week for inventing characters and events in at least a dozen of his articles for Germany’s Der Spiegel, including one article on the rural town of Fergus Falls, Minnesota.
Relotius, who won CNN’s 2014 Journalist of the Year award, was exposed by a colleague for making up stories and inventing protagonists, the publication said in a statement. Relotius later admitted to the fraud, telling his employer that his “fear of failing” drove him to fabricate his stories, according to The Guardian.
One of those stories was a 2017 “expose” of rural Minnesota, which Der Spiegel now describes as “under the suspicion of far-reaching falsifications and manipulations by the author.”
Relotius’ profile of Fergus Falls, titled “In a Small Town,” depicts its residents as “people who pray for Donald Trump on Sundays,” saying they are “typical of rural America.” But on Wednesday, Fergus Falls residents Michele Anderson and Jake Krohn published an article on Medium that highlights 11 different lies in Relotius’ story.
Among Relotius’ lies were an “iPad for Beginners” class in Fergus Falls that never occurred, a high-school class trip to Trump Tower in New York that never happened, and one “coal plant” employee whose “hands are always black” but who doesn’t actually exist.
“Not only did Relotius’ ‘expose’ of 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 bizarrely bleak portrayal of the place I love left a very sick, unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach,” Anderson writes, saying she and Krohn have been working on exposing Relotius since his article was published.
Relotius depicted Fergus Falls City Administrator Andrew Bremseth as a “gun-toting virgin” who had “never seen the ocean.” Bremseth, however, has been in a relationship for a few years, and is even pictured with his girlfriend standing in front of the ocean.
“Anyone who knows anything about me, this [portrayal] is the furthest from what I stand for,” Bremseth told Anderson and Krohn.
Relotius, who spent a month in Fergus Falls working on the story, claimed that the town hosted a “Western evening” party where the women “danced in old-fashioned clothes” and the men “wore hats or cowboy boots.”
“They poured sand and straw on the porch, grilled marinated beef halves, and played a country band,” Relotius wrote. But the party never happened, and nobody in the town can recall any such party, including the mayor.
Relotius described Fergus Falls residents as obsessed with the movie “American Sniper,” claiming in his article that the film was still showing to sold-out audiences two years after its release date.
“The film is actually already two years old, almost 40 million Americans have seen it, but it still runs in Fergus Fall,” Relotius said. Anderson and Krohn, however, found that the Fergus Falls movie theater hasn’t played “American Sniper” since 2015, two years before Relotius’ article.
“This anecdote that supported Relotius’ exaggerated story of an immigrant-fearing, gun-obsessed small town was one of the easiest to fact check and yet the strangest, most random lie for him to craft,” Anderson and Krohn write.
Relotius has since resigned from Der Spiegel and returned several of his awards in what The Wall Street Journal is calling the “largest journalistic scandal in years.”
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