I’ve got way too much on my plate right now to want to write about this, but the whole case irks me to no end, and I don’t think I’ll have any peace until I get some of my thoughts out of my system.
The case of Claas Relotius has been in the news recently. He was a star investigative reporter for Germany’s premier news magazine, “Der Spiegel” (“The Mirror”). He has worked there for over a decade, winning numerous awards, including CNN’s “Journalist of the Year” award in 2014. It turns out that a lot of what he wrote was pure fabrication. He has been fired from “Der Spiegel”, and some are saying that the magazine is falling over itself to apologize. While this may seem to be the case, even their reaction to a “takedown” done by a writer in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, indicates that, for the most part, “Der Spiegel” remains as arrogant as ever. Mind you, Relotius wasn’t sacked because of this “takedown”, but it’s publication happily coincided with the discovery of his deception and his firing.
The reason this case affects me personally is because I have deep ties to Minnesota. Not only have I lived there (and actually been in Fergus Falls), but a good percentage of the Scandinavian side of my family settled in Minnesota, and a number of relatives still reside there. That being said, I’ve also spent years of my life living in Germany and I love the country dearly. Even years later, I’m still in contact with people over there on a daily basis, communicating in German.
The article, written on Medium.com, detailing the “Top 11” of Relotius’ lies can be found here: https://medium.com/@micheleanderson/der-spiegel-journalist-messed-with-the-wrong-small-town-d92f3e0e01a7. The article, by and large, is very good, despite a couple of slips by the author, Michele Anderson, who can’t seem to help herself in throwing a couple of her own digs to conservatives in the piece. However, that being said, she obviously loves the town, and comes to an amazing defense of it, including those with whom she does not agree politically.
This article got so much attention that “Der Spiegel” actually published a response, in German, to it. (Link: http://www.spiegel.de/kultur/gesellschaft/fall-claas-relotius-us-kleinstadt-fergus-falls-vom-betrug-beim-spiegel-betroffen-a-1244806.html) However, for as much as the magazine is publicly saying, “We’re sorry, we’re sorry, we’re sorry”, even this response demonstrates biases in Der Spiegel’s reporting, the first of which was that they had to issue a correction to a fact that was clearly stated in the rebuttal, which they then mangled (in Relotius’ favor) in the response. But let’s have a look at this…
Introduction: The first section that they translate – and mind you, translation is a tricky art – starts from the sentence “In 7,300 words he really only got our town’s population and average annual temperature correct, and a few other basic things, like the names of businesses and public figures, things that a child could figure out in a Google search.” The translation here isn’t bad, in my opinion, and despite the fact that if it were a passage written natively in German, it would be phrased somewhat differently, I think it is good enough that the feeling of the authors’ indignity at the situation still comes through.
Unfortunately, they were a lot less careful in many other places.
1) In the section where Anderson and Krohn talk about entering Fergus Falls, where Relotius says there’s a forest and that the sign reads “Welcome to Fergus Falls, home of damn good folks.” Anderson and Krohn write the following: “Fergus Falls is located on the prairie — which means our landscape mostly consists of tall grass and lakes. While we have trees, we do not have any distinct forests in our city limits, and definitely not in the route that the bus Relotius would have taken from the Twin Cities. And sadly, our welcome sign is quite mundane in its greeting.”
In Der Spiegel’s response, they translate it this way: ‘”Fergus Falls liegt in der Steppe”, schreiben Anderson und Krohn. Es gebe kaum Bäume. Und auf dem Schild am Stadteingang stehe lediglich “Willkommen in Fergus Falls”‘.
Excuse me, but that’s bad. First they start it out with something that is supposed to be a quote “Fergus Falls lies on the steppe…” Yes, I know there are plenty of Russia conspiracy theories flying around today, but Fergus Falls is hardly a locale in Siberia. There may be similarities between prairie and steppes, but they aren’t the same. Then, tellingly, they go from quote to their own paraphrase. “There are hardly any trees. And on the sign at the entrance to the city simply states “Welcome to Fergus Falls”. For anyone who has been in the area, this again is a very large mischaracterization of the area. There are no shortage of trees in the Fergus Falls area. However, the point was that there is no *forest*. Although certain parts of the prairie, certainly places like Kansas, for example, had very few trees when white settlers first came to the area, it is not impossible for trees to grow here, and in fact, they grow quite well. However, if one is to notice, one can see even now that a large percentage were planted intentionally, in lines to mark property lines as well as to protect people and homes from the mighty winds which, without the trees, would be buffeted mercilessly in all seasons. The trees may be a small thing, but it was something.
2) Total fabrication. But how does it pass the editorial board of “Der Spiegel”, that not only did Relotius lie about the city administrator, but he felt it necessary to lie about his sexual activity. How does whether or not he has a girlfriend have ANYTHING to do with anything? It makes it seem like Der Spiegel is trying to be “Das Bild” for the wanna-be intellectual crowd.
3) UPS cannot deliver mail, it has nothing to do with the United States Post Office, therefore “Paketdienst” is much more appropriate than “Postdienst”.
8)Relotius’ report: ‘“Anyone who enters it [the high school] must pass through a security line, through three armored glass doors, and a weapon scanner.”
Rebuttal: Although we haven’t tested the strength of the doors fronting our high school, we are quite sure that “armored” is an exaggeration, and there are two, not three, sets of doors; their real purpose is to keep the cold January air out of the school more than automatic weapons. That is not to say our grounds are not secure — all doors are locked during the school day and visitors must pass through the school office to receive a visitor’s pass before entering. While this picture of a hardened school is undoubtedly true elsewhere in the U.S., it’s simply not the case in Fergus Falls.
“Der Spiegel” paraphrase: In fact, the school has two entrance doors, not three. Whether they are really made of armored glass, Anderson and Krohn wrote that they don’t know.
Umm.. The rebuttal has a certain amount of humor and sarcasm that I believe was lost on the German trying to go through this. They didn’t simply say that they “weren’t sure”. They said that they could, with pretty good confidence, say that the glass is not armored glass, though they haven’t been “thorough enough” in their journalistic pursuits to actually test them themselves. After all, they’re just a couple of hicks living in Fergus Falls, not a WORLD CLASS REPORTER FROM DER SPIEGEL! Relotius was the one getting paid for the journalism, not Anderson or Krohn.
Now, these may seem to be little things, but they really are indicative of a larger problem with the attitude of a lot of journalists, and not only in Der Spiegel, or in Germany, or in general. However, as an American who has lived in Germany, who speaks German, and who has interacted with a lot of Germans in their own language, I cannot tell you the number of times I have been asked to explain things about the United States. That’s all well and good, and to be expected. However, what really annoyed me was when someone would ask me something about something in the United States, and I would give my opinion based on actually living in the United States and having these issues affect me in my life, just to have someone come back at me, “Well, that’s not what Der Spiegel says, and so you must be wrong about your opinion.” Der Spiegel enjoyed such a place of trust among Germans that if it was printed here, it was taken as gospel, at least by a certain percentage of people who considered themselves intellectually superior not only to a good number of their countrymen, but most especially to crazy “cowboy” Americans like me.
To me, it’s like water off a duck’s back. I understand people will be people in all their foibles and rough edges. As long as it’s not meant in ill will, I don’t take it personally. Germans, for all their consumption of American media, do not understand America well, and we don’t exactly do a good job being ambassadors for our own country. However, the German media is even worse; for all the horrible media President Trump has received, the only place where he’s had even more negative coverage is in Germany. However, for all the articles about the United States in “Der Spiegel”, for all the Germans who trumpet about how much better everything is in Germany, how better read and better travelled the average German is, I share the following: I have been asked by a Gymnasium student how it is we can even have American History as a subject in school, considering how short the span of time “American History” is. I have been asked by a student at one of Germany’s most prestigious Universities, a well-to-do young woman in her early twenties, if all Americans live in skyscrapers. I was asked, over and over, how it is that America voted George W. Bush in as President. One time, when it seemed like a bunch of people were kind of ganging up on me, one of my acquaintances came to my defense, telling the people at the table, “Lay off of her, after all, Bush is from Texas and she is not, and Texas isn’t really America.” Now, I knew that he knew that Texas really is part of the United States, especially as he had spent a couple of months there, but even with that experience, he still could not fathom a lot of what is America.
I know that as I have gotten older, I have probably become more conservative politically, though, like most of the people in Fergus Falls, I’d imagine, I try not to let political disagreements hurt relationships between friends and family, though this hasn’t always been possible. My friends in Germany knew that I didn’t vote for Barack Obama in 2008, and I think at the time, this was mystifying, that I couldn’t bring myself to vote for the “New Messiah”, the One who was going to bring peace to the world, lower the sea levels, end all wars, etc. (Gentle sarcasm here, folks, gentle sarcasm.) However, I found it interesting that speaking with them just a couple of years later, I was hearing voices, whispering doubts that maybe the Obama phenomenon was overblown, that perhaps he was a charlatan of sorts, more style than substance. But these things were only said in quiet conversation in a private home; to utter these things publicly would surely lead to repercussions.
German media has demonized President Trump to an incredible degree, yet my feeling is that they are upset that the German public is probably less likely to demonize him than President George W. Bush. If my friends are any indication, they respect the man, and they respect that he seems to stand for the “everyman” in a way that the elitist in politics, academia, and media do not. They won’t express it in public, but even with knowing as little as I do about the AfD, it’s no surprise to me, as a complete outsider, where they are finding support. Sure, there may be some fringe lunatics who have attached themselves to the party, but their popularity is an indication that many, many people there think Germany is on the wrong path and that their voices are not just not being heard, but are being actively shut out. As far as I know, none of my friends support the AfD, but they certainly do feel alienated by the “elites” of Germany; I can’t say that any of them, had they had the chance, would have voted for Trump, but I know that there are people there who are hoping against hope that there will be someone who can lead Germany in a better direction.
The Germans have the term Lügenpresse, a pejorative, to be sure, to describe the press who lie on purpose. Of course, when it comes to government-run press, this is the norm, but among the “elite’ of world reporting, there is more and more of a push to not just report the news, but to shape opinion in one direction. Spending years in Germany, I perceived that although Germans are famous for law-making and being law-abiding citizens, there is a subcurrent where people enjoy cheating the system, and they are looked up to for it – until the moment they get caught. Sure, a lot of what I heard was in the context of “Schwarzfahren” – riding public transit without paying – but it certainly explains a lot when you consider things like the VW/Audi diesel scandal and this story here. On one hand, German law goes down to such minute detail, it seem like it’s hard not to be flouting some sort of law or regulation regardless of what one does. On the other, “hurrah” if you can get away with it!
This scandal will probably do little to Der Spiegel. They’ll do the requisite grovelling, and in a couple of weeks, or months, when the world has latched on to some other “outrage”, all will be as it once was. Sure, they’ll send their new reporter out to Fergus Falls to test the strength of the glass at the high school, but chances are they will come back with no better understanding of Fergus Falls or the US than they did before. That would take humility. That would be coming before these crazy “cowboy” Americans and really trying to see the world from a different point of view. Call me a cynic; it hasn’t happened with similar scandals in the American press, and I doubt it’ll happen here either. It’s a shame, too, because when one can be humble, the whole world really does open up incredibly.