A German journalist who trekked to Fergus Falls, Minn., to profile a rural Midwest community after President Donald Trump’s inauguration wrote that he was greeted at the city limits by a sign that read: “Mexicans Keep Out.”
Problem is, the sign reporter Claas Relotius described in his March 2017 article in Der Spiegel, a German language news magazine, never existed. Some of the quotes in the story were made up, too, as were some of the anecdotes — from a brewery hosting a Super Bowl viewing party (the brewery was closed that day) to the city administrator hosting a “Game of Thrones” quiz night (the city leader said he doesn’t even own a TV).
On Wednesday, Der Spiegel disclosed that Relotius, an award-winning reporter, confessed to fabricating at least 14 articles out of the nearly 60 he wrote since 2011, including the descriptive article about Fergus Falls.
The revelation came as no surprise to some of the Minnesotans quoted in the article.
“There’s so little in the story that’s factual,” said City Administrator Andrew Bremseth, who was featured extensively in the article and said he contacted Relotius about inaccuracies after the story was published but didn’t get a response. “There were people he totally created.”
Four days after Trump’s inauguration, Relotius traveled to Fergus Falls, a city of 13,000 residents in Otter Tail County, and spent three weeks there, hoping to interview voters in one of the rural Minnesota counties Trump won. Der Spiegel said it sent Relotius to write an article to give readers better insight into Americans.
“He was just looking for a classic American town,” said Michele Anderson, who’s lived in Fergus Falls for seven years and is the rural program director for Springboard for the Arts.
But, the news magazine said, Relotius couldn’t find any substance to back up his story, and instead of killing the idea or finding a new angle, he led the article with the image of an anti-Mexican sign, a sign that “was only in the imagination of the author,” Der Spiegel wrote, according to Google Translate. “Relotius gives the inhabitants of Fergus Falls false biographies that fit him as if he were a puppeteer.”
“It’s a small town; a lot of us would have known about it,” Anderson said of an anti-Mexican sign popping up.
Anderson said she met Relotius in Fergus Falls in January 2017 and was stunned when she read his final article. Afterward, she tweeted at Der Spiegel that it was a fictional portrayal of Fergus Falls but got no response.
With the help of a friend, she said she’s spent the past year and a half fact-checking the article, pointing out inaccuracies in names and descriptions of the city and made-up quotes. For instance, Relotius describes the movie “American Sniper,” being sold out at the theater, yet the theater confirmed the movie wasn’t playing in town at that time.
Relotius also wrote about Bremseth watching the Super Bowl at a brewery, but the brewery was closed on Sundays. A Western-themed party that the reporter described never occurred, Anderson added, and neither did a high school field trip to New York, where Relotius said students skipped the Statue of Liberty to visit Trump Tower.
“It totally matters if my town is portrayed as this entirely fictional rural stereotype,” Anderson said. “We’re just happy he’s finally being discredited.”
Relotius also described Bremseth wearing a pistol holstered to his belt while at work. Bremseth said Wednesday he doesn’t carry a gun in City Hall and never said some of what was attributed to him. He said he didn’t contact anyone else associated with the magazine, thinking the city had no recourse.
“We’ve moved beyond it,” Bremseth said. “I’m glad the truth is coming out.”
He added that the story “probably gave us a black eye, which is unfortunate.”
According to the Associated Press Wednesday, the German Journalists’ Union DJU called the case “the biggest fraud scandal in journalism since the Hitler diaries,” which Germany’s Stern magazine published in 1983 and later found to be forgeries.
According to Spiegel, after a colleague raised questions in November about Relotius’ work, Relotius confessed he invented entire passages, fabricated quotes and created composite characters. The weekly magazine said Relotius has left the organization and that it’s investigating his articles.
Fergus Falls Mayor Ben Schierer said Wednesday that the city is just trying to move on. He met Relotius several times and said the journalist also visited other rural cities in the region and may have blended descriptions of different people and communities with “bits of truth sprinkled in.”
“We take pride in our community; to portray us as being unwelcoming or racist … that’s just infuriating,” Schierer said. “It went from being bizarre … to this is incredibly offensive.”