Turns out, it seems most folks in Fergus Falls, Minn., aren’t the type to hold a grudge.
So when a reporter from the German news magazine Der Spiegel hit town last week to apologize for the mess caused by a colleague who fabricated a profile about the city after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, residents went out of their way to help set their story straight — and did so with open minds.
“It tells you something about our community,” Mayor Ben Schierer said Monday. “Ultimately, this has been a positive for us.”
Just days after Der Spiegel went public with the news that Claas Relotius, an award-winning journalist, had made up a story out of Fergus Falls in March 2017, it sent its Washington, D.C., bureau chief, Christoph Scheuermann, to the northwestern Minnesota city to put together an accurate portrayal of the Otter Tail County community.
After nearly four days of interviews, Scheuermann’s story was published online Sunday, and it provided a much different — and far more positive — account than Relotius’ fictitious version.
“Scheuermann was able to do a much better job in the three days he was in town than Relotius did in five weeks,” said Michele Anderson, who spent the past 18 months fact-checking the original story.
The trouble started in early 2017 when Relotius arrived to profile a rural Midwestern community in a county that had voted for Trump in the 2016 presidential race. The idea, Der Spiegel later said, was to give readers better insight into Americans.
Relotius’ story ultimately included many falsehoods, among them — that he was greeted at the city limits by a sign that read: “Mexicans Keep Out.” Schierer said Monday that he found that whopper, stated in the opening paragraphs, the most offensive.
The article then went from bizarre to just laughable, he said.
Relotius fabricated names and descriptions of the city and in some cases, made up quotes. He inaccurately reported what movie was playing in town when he visited, described a Super Bowl party at a brewery that never occurred, and wrote that high school students skipped a trip to the Statue of Liberty in New York to see Trump Tower, when they didn’t.
Schierer said he also took great exception to Relotius’ portrayal of City Administrator Andrew Bremseth, who the writer said wore a pistol holstered to his belt while at work. He also wrote that Bremseth had a stuffed wild boar in his office.
“I don’t know anybody with more character and integrity than Andrew,” said Schierer. “He took the attack very personally, but I knew the truth would ultimately come out.”
Bremseth and others in the story contacted Der Spiegel shortly after the article was published to make the magazine aware of the mistakes. For the next year and a half, Fergus Falls residents Anderson and Jake Krohn fact-checked the 12-page article and notified the magazine’s editorial office in Hamburg of all the errors, but never received a response.
After one of Relotius’ colleagues raised questions in November about his work, however, Der Spiegel said it investigated. The writer later confessed that he had invented entire passages and made up some quotes. After Der Spiegel announced last week that Relotius had produced a series of false stories, Anderson and Krohn pointed out on a website the inaccuracies they had found.
“Scheuermann apologized for what happened at the magazine and said he was here to set the record straight,” said Anderson, rural program director for Springboard for the Arts. “He was very sincere.”
Anderson introduced Scheuermann to several people who had been misportrayed in the first story, including a fictitious man named Neil Becker. Relotius said “Neil” Becker was a hardworking coal shoveler at the local power plant. Scheuermann wrote about Doug Becker, who “ran a gym … for 34 years and is familiar with almost every airport in the United States”.
“I first thought the article was a piece of satire,” Becker is quoted as saying in Scheuermann’s article. “I don’t feel offended at all.”
Scheuermann also spoke with Maria Rodriguez, who initially was described as a Trump voter and restaurant worker suffering from kidney disease who was running out of money. He learned that Rodriquez actually is quite healthy, and operates a restaurant in Alexandria with her husband. She didn’t vote, she told Scheuermann, because she doesn’t have a U.S. passport and is ineligible to do so.
Scheuermann said in a phone interview Monday that having to follow up on his former colleague’s mess was the worst assignment he has had in years. His article ran online Sunday. He said a longer piece will be published later this week.
“I didn’t imagine axes being thrown at me when I came to town, but I did expect resentment and anger,” he said. “People invited me to have a seat at their dinner table and were happy to share what Fergus Falls is about.”
He emphasized that he wasn’t on a “diplomatic mission,” but still needed to find out what went wrong during the initial story. He said it was weird to walk around town and see a completely different picture of Fergus Falls.
“People didn’t gloss over the fact that they have some issues with closed shops, a train station and a shopping mall,” he said. “It’s the sort of issue many rural towns are facing right now. But it’s a working town and they pride themselves living there.”
Scheuermann also didn’t see any hint of the prejudices that Relotius described. He called the fictitious story “a journalistic disaster,” and said he understood why Bremseth is still upset.
Anderson, who spoke with both journalists, said she has been interviewed by reporters from around the world who wanted to know more. She said she has received hundreds of e-mails daily from apologetic media members and sympathetic rural residents.
“If anything good comes of this, I feel it will be the internal conversation about media that has been enlightening to me,” she said. “When the first article came out, we just kept kind of quiet and tried to take the high road. The fact that the magazine responded so quickly once they learned of the errors meant a lot to us.”
Schierer said the incident has galvanized the city of nearly 14,000 residents, many of whom were proud to tell the real story. He’s quick to point out the town’s positives — award-winning educational and health systems, popular art scene, successful rural business initiatives and beautiful historic downtown.
“The people make this community so wonderful,” he said. “This gave us a unique opportunity to tell the world our story.”