By now many reading this have heard of the kerfuffle involving the German news weekly Der Speigel and award-winning reporter Claas Relotius, who created “fake news” at a world-class level.
Before he was finally caught and fired, Relotius became semi-famous as a globe-trotting writer. He was CNN’s “Journalist of the Year” in 2014.
He largely achieved this success by providing what the market wanted. He wrote stories that were shared and shared and shared again.
In this, the story of his rise and fall is a lesson in how the ecology of journalism has changed in the new environment of the internet. And the best, albeit saddest, insight into this evolution might be provided by the treatment given Juan Moreno, the reporter who caught Relotius.
A story titled “‘Jaeger’s Border’ would prove to be Relotius’ undoing,” Der Speigel reported in a come-clean, Dec. 20 expose of their former star reporter. “It was one fabricated story too many, because this time, he had a co-author, who sounded the alarm while also collecting facts to counter his fiction.”
Never mind that Moreno’s claims that Relotius was making things up were dismissed by his bosses at the start and predictably so. Relotius wrote dramatic stories that brought a lot of eyeballs to Der Spiegel’s website.
Der Spiegel had a winner at the table and no desire to know that he was playing with loaded dice. Others were just gullible.
A detail-filled story Relotius wrote about a Syrian boy fearful that he started that nation’s civil war by scribbling some graffiti on a wall in Daraa attracted major attention in Europe.
The idea that graffiti started that war has been hanging around for sometime, but Relotius took it to a new level. Who could not believe it?
Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, and thus a fiction too strange to be fiction had to be truth, right? Who could make up this sort of story? Smitten journalism judges in Germany awarded Relotius the honor of 2018 “reporter of the year” for that country.
It was one more feather in the cap for Relotius and his bosses at Der Spiegel. While they were all celebrating, Moreno was out tracking down the “Jaeger’s Border” tale of vigilantes patrolling the U.S.-Mexican border.
It was clearly not what his bosses wanted him doing.
Good old boys and girls
No major news organization wants to out as a fraud its 33-year-old, still-rising star reporter. Moreno is lucky he didn’t get fired for unmasking Relotius.
And he was risking more than potential career destruction. A given about journalism today is that journalists (with a few exceptions) don’t look upon each other with the same critical eye they look upon everything else.
Thus journalists who raise questions about journalism are seldom welcome anywhere. Journalism has become a club, and in a club, you don’t go around calling out the other members.
“In the dispute with and surrounding Relotius,” Der Spiegel confessed in its telltale that clearly only told part of the tale, “Moreno risked his own job, at times even desperately seeking to re-report his colleague’s claims at his own expense. Moreno would go through three or four weeks of hell because his colleagues and senior editors in Hamburg didn’t initially believe that Relotius could be nothing more than a liar.”
More than that, Moreno risked ostracization.
Der Spiegel’s recap, which has a few holes, is a pretty good summary of why so much questionable behavior in journalism gets overlooked in these times. The main reason is there aren’t many reporters as courageous as Moreno.
Most reporters aware of a story just too good to be true will let it go to avoid any potential trouble. There is no upside to digging around in stuff to find out what the real story because you’re going to be nothing but unpopular if the reality disagrees with the narrative endorsed by prior publication.
Journalists who do what Moreno did are even less popular than those internal affairs investigators portrayed in TV dramas about law enforcement.
“In late November and into early December, some at Der Spiegel even believed that Moreno was the real phony and that Relotius was the victim of slander,” Der Spiegel revealed. “Relotius skillfully parried all allegations and all of Moreno’s well-researched evidence, constantly coming up with new ways of sowing doubt, plausibly refuting accusations and twisting the truth in his favor.”
“Skillfully parried” is a subjective summary on Der Spiegel’s part. The likelihood is that little skill was required. All Relotius had to do was reinforce what his editors wanted to believe.
“Until, ultimately, his tricks stopped working,” Der Spiegel reported with no explanation of what led Relotius to reach that conclusion except that “he could no longer sleep at night for fear that he might get caught. Relotius caved in last week when a superior, Özlem Gezer, deputy head of the “Gesellschaft” section where he worked, confronted him and told him outright that she no longer believed him.”
Der Spiegel wants everyone to believe that after years of lying, Relotius finally started having sleeping problems and came clean. That’s almost has hard to believe as Relotius’s story about the Syrian boy.
See no evil
Fake news runs wild in the tubes, though strangely few in the mainstream media called the Relotius story fake news.
Those two words are nowhere to be found in BBC, New York Times and Associated Press stories, although some USA Today copy editor did have the audacity to put the lightening-rod words in a headline above the AP story the website used.
The Washington Post mentioned fake news only to lament how “the Spiegel controversy could also bolster those who now regularly portray reporting as ‘fake news.’ As a publication that often allows its reporters to include subjective observations in their stories, Spiegel’s anti-Trump cover pieces had been widely shared in liberal circles in recent years.
One of the anti-Trump cover pieces to which the Post refers is a story about Fergus Falls, Minn., and the Post’s reference to “subjective observations” is a gross mischaracterization of what Relotius did in the story.
Relotius didn’t make subjective observations; Relotius wrote fiction.
“What happened is beyond what I could have ever imagined: An article titled ‘Where they pray for Trump on Sundays,’ and endless pages of an insulting, if not hilarious, excuse for journalism,” Minnesota artist Michele Anderson wrote in a story published at Medium.
“Not only did Relotius’ ‘exposé’ on 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 its bizarrely bleak portrayal of the place I love left a very sick, unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach.
“There are so many lies here, that my friend Jake and I had to narrow them down to top 11 most absurd lies (we couldn’t do just 10) for the purpose of this article. We’ve been working on it since the article came out in spring of 2017, but had to set it aside to attend to our lives (raising a family, managing a nonprofit organization, etc.) before coming back to it this fall, and finally wrapped things up a few weeks ago, just in time to hear today that Relotius was fired when he was exposed for fabricating many of his articles.”
The story that follows is well worth a read, and sure to leave you scratching your head as to how all the lies in Relotius’s overwritten claptrap got past Der Spiegel’s “fact checkers”:
“After three and a half hours, the bus bends from the highway to a narrow, sloping street, rolling towards a dark forest that looks like dragons live in it. At the entrance, just before the station, there is a sign with the American stars and stripes banner, which reads: “Welcome to Fergus Falls, home of damn good folks.”
Really? A bus is rolling into a small town that looks like a “dark forest?” Forget the dragon.
Is there any small town anywhere with a forest – rather than a bunch of buildings – behind its welcome sign?
Not to mention that “home of damn good folks.” Obviously no one at Der Spiegel ever listened to a Prairie Home Companion because a “home of damn good folks” sounds just a little too much like the town “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”
There could, of course, be a sign like Relotious describes somewhere, but here’s the thing about stories with elements that sound too good to be true:
They often sound that way because they are lies.
That so few cared at the time the story was written is a reflection of how products evolve in response to changing environments, and the market for journalism is radically different today than it was even a decade ago.
Newspapers, magazines and broadcast outlets long lived in a limited number of defined niches over which they had a huge amount of control because of the high costs of equipment – printing presses and radio or television stations – necessary to carry news to the masses.
These news organizations made tons of money selling advertising to businesses that had limited options for broadly pitching their products. By and large, the latter businesses were uncomfortable with controversy; so journalists walked a fine line in producing a product that wasn’t so deadly boring no one would read it (though newspapers were sometimes deadly boring) or so aggressive it was daily offending advertisers.
For better or worse, the trade-offs put pressure on news organizations to, for lack of a better description, behave responsibly. Facts became the best defense against those who accused news organizations of behaving badly.
The internet blew up that world. Suddenly not only could advertisers take their message to everyman and everywoman, so too almost anyone could become a “journalist” over night.
All of a sudden businesses that had spent decades in the comfort of what were essentially closed markets found themselves in a fight for their lives in a wide open market where people get to pick from a smorgasbord of choices of what they want to read.
On the business level, news survival became a war for eyeballs.
National Lampoon saw it coming, whether the editors knew it or not, when it put a photo of a dog with a gun at its head on the cover of the January 1973 magazine with this simple headline:
“If You Don’t Buy this Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog”.
Then it was humor. Lampoon was mocking the dog-eat-dog world (excuse the pun) of magazine publishing. Survival then depended on subscriptions.
Survival now depends on eyeballs. News and news-oriented websites sells advertising on the basis of internet traffic. There are exceptions, but this is generally the way things work.
In this world, the more traffic a website attracts, the more money it makes. Advertisers are charged in various ways for how many people see their ad.
Enter the Relotiuses of the world. Their bosses love them because their stories attract lots of eyeballs.
And it’s not a bad thing that stories are widely read. The reality of being a writer of any sort is that if nobody is reading what you’re writing, you’re just wasting your time.
And if a business is publishing what you’re writing and no one is reading, it is not only helping you waste your time, it is also wasting the time of a lot of other employees.
In this environment, it is pretty easy for some to overlook the abuse of the rules if the product is selling. And if someone does get caught abusing the rules, the downside isn’t that big.
In fact, the downside might be a lot of upside.
Der Spiegel’s mea culpa on the Relotius affair has attracted a significant amount of traffic. The news organization benefited for years from his production of fake news and is now benefiting from outing his production of fake news while offering the suggestion that the latter action somehow separates Der Speigel from those kids in Macedonia benefiting from fake news.
The problem is that the kids were pushing a comic-book version of news recognizable to anyone with half a brain as fake while Der Spiegel was loading up the Rembrandt knock-off version of the news.
Even if what Relotius wrote sounded too unbelievable to be true, it carried the imprimatur of Der Speigel, a supposedly respected news organization. That gave Relotius’s work significantly more credibility than some piece of Macedonian junk from an unheard of website appearing on Facebook.
Whether anyone in the journalism business cares anymore is hard to tell.
Close to home
Two of the five were basically fake news.
One was about a mutt named “Nanook, or “Nookie” for short, (who) has made a habit of accompanying hikers on the trailhead that lies just a half mile from his Girdwood home — sometimes, saving their lives,” KTVA says.
The evidence to support this conclusion. A young woman who fell in Eagle River last summer and believes Nookie pulled her out and saved her life. The woman is large. Nookie is small.
There were no eye witnesses to the incident. Merely the size difference between the dog and the woman make the story questionable. That she believes Nookie saved her life means only that she believes.
Nookie’s owner has pushed the story of his heroic dog at every opportunity, however, and some journalists have bought it the way the editors of Der Speigel bought Relotius’s reporting.
“Swift said Nookie saved another hiker, a little girl hiking Crow Pass Trail with her family, from the same river crossing where Milling fell,”KTVA reported “Swife (sic) also got a phone call from a woman saying that Nookie saved her friend who was caught in an avalanche a few years ago.”
The names of any of these people? Non-existent.
The likelihood of a “little girl” hiking Cross Pass Trail with her family? Low.
Crow Pass is a challenging 23-mile scramble through the Chugach Mountains. The ford on the glacial Eagle River is about halfway along the route. Chugach State Park has a video of some of the trail and the river crossing.
Watch it yourself and decide how many parents would take a “little girl” on this sort of adventure. A few maybe. And how many of them would do so unprepared to rescue the “little girl” themselves instead of hoping for somebody’s stray dog to come along?
The little girl story is as believable as a teenager’s graffiti sparking the Syrian civil war, but some reporters – like some people – believe what they want to believe instead of limiting themselves to the story the facts will support.
The second story is even more fake, if that is possible.
It recounts how Iditarod Trail Sled Dog musher “Scott Janssen saved his friend and fellow musher.”
But Janssen didn’t save anyone. He found friend Jim Lanier in trouble in a snowstorm and hung around with him until they both ended up in trouble. Both of them were then saved by Iditarod officials and volunteers.
“Due to frostbite Janssen couldn’t dial his wife’s number on the satellite phone,” the KTVA story claims. It comes complete with a video of Janssen telling his tale. He waves his hands around. There are no black spots, which is the color skin turns after being frostbitten.
“…Both men’s eyes started to cloud over, as their corneas started to freeze,” the story says. “Frostbite and hypothermia were setting in.”
And yet, after their rescue, neither man needed medical treatment. All KTVA left out was a summary of that miracle.
But the Nookie story and the Janssen story appeared to have trafficked well the first time around, and thus there is no good reason not to bring them back for a New Year’s replay.
Relotius might be journalistic outlier, but only to the extent that he was presented the opportunity to bend the rules to the extreme in a business where bending the rules seems to becoming ever more the norm.