How Der Spiegel was deceived by a fabulist

The offices of Der Spiegel on December 20, 2018. (Photo by Morris MacMatzen/Getty Images)

As it is the German tendency to have a single noun for specific, even obscure concepts, there is a word for the relationship between a journalistic outfit and its readership. Leserbindung, the bond between reader and journalist, is the value that Der Spiegel, the German weekly news magazine, now finds itself desperately trying to salvage. The week before Christmas, Der Spiegel announced that it had a dishonest reporter in its midst. The week prior, the magazine’s editors became aware that one of its star reporters, Claas Relotius, 33, had fabricated award-winning stories about Turkey, Syria, Guantanamo, the US, and elsewhere. “We are deeply sorry about what has happened. We have a large readership which can now be forgiven for wondering if Der Spiegel should still be trusted,” write Steffan Klusmann and Dirk Kurbjuweit, the editor in chief and the deputy editor in chief, respectively. As MEEDIA, the German media oversight publication, writes, “The damage that Claas Relotius has done to the Spiegel brand cannot yet be measured.”

Relotius’s deception came to light after he had worked for the magazine for some seven years, publishing close to 60 stories. In late 2018, he was assigned to co-author a story with Juan Moreno, a freelancer for Der Spiegel, that was published in November as “Jaeger’s Border.” The idea was to offer a dual account of the migrants making their way toward the Mexico-US border and the vigilante militants poised to receive them. Moreno quickly became suspicious: Relotius said he preferred to work alone; that his protagonist, a member of a militia known to refuse journalists, consented to have Relotius cover his violent, even criminal behavior, only to shy away from being photographed. Moreno spoke to Relotius, raising the possibility that Relotius had been lied to by his source, not imagining that Relotius had fabricated his work. Relotius ignored him and, in mid-November, as the story was about to go to press, Moreno relayed his concerns to his editors, who initially waved them away. Soon thereafter, Moreno, who was on assignment in Las Vegas, surreptitiously traveled to Arizona to meet Relotius’s supposed sources and found that they had never spoken to him. Only then were Moreno’s accusations taken seriously.

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As his editors have since discovered, Relotius’s fabrications were brazen, extensive, and methodical. He registered false email addresses and Facebook accounts from invented sources to share with editors and fact-checkers. After being frustrated in his attempts to speak to Colin Kaepernick, Relotius falsely reported that he spoke on the phone with the player’s parents. He visited Fergus Falls, Minnesota, to write about a small town that had voted for Trump. He spent 38 days there and delivered a portrait of a community populated with individuals who either didn’t exist or who had names, medical conditions, or jobs that were invented. He fabricated a profile of a woman who traveled around the US witnessing death-row executions. In “Königskinder,” one of his most decorated stories, he wrote of orphan siblings in Turkey, Ahmed and Alin, who had been displaced from Syria. Ahmed, Relotius wrote, had seen his father shot by a firing squad and buried his mother by hand. In reality, Ahmed’s father had disappeared but wasn’t shot; his mother is alive and works in a furniture store; and Alin, if she exists, is not his sister.

 

As an editor and section head, your first reaction when receiving stories like this is to be pleased, not suspicious.

 

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Critics hold Der Spiegel accountable: had the magazine not developed such an appetite for literary reportage—the “Spiegel style” the magazine is known for—Relotius might not have gotten away with his lies. Hans-Peter Siebenhaar, the media reporter for the Handelsblatt, writes that “the scandal offers the chance to clean house of the stereotyped stories that aim only for popularity with the target audience.” Alexander Clarkson, a lecturer for German and European studies at King’s College London, argued in a tweet that Relotius’s stories might have been harder to fabricate if they had challenged rather than confirmed readers’ and editors’ prejudices: “A media culture that too easily falls back on rhetorical tropes and stylistic devices that build on entrenched social prejudices . . . will inevitably be vulnerable to literary fraudsters skilled at producing florid copy that confirms readers’ expectations.” Clarkson tells me, “If it’s a tradition of your magazine to make complex facts and developments accessible to a wide, mass audience, then the bias of your editors will be to cut away the structural stuff and focus on the personal-level, engaging, emotive stuff that will allow readers to connect with what you’re trying to discuss.”

Relotius wrote in typical Spiegel style: descriptive, colorful, even purple prose that emphasizes the emotional over the factual, often going so far as to imagine a protagonist’s interior world. He included unusually perfect details, like the Tom Petty song (“I Won’t Back Down”) that played in an embattled abortion clinic and the lyrics of the song a young Syrian refugee sang as she walked through a city in Turkey. In “Königskinder,” he wrote that the story is “so lively and truthful, it’s as though only children could have written it.” (It’s a bold move to suggest, within an invented story, that it’s so good it could only have been fabricated.) Relotius’s flare for a quasi-literary style might have led his editors to push him harder to demonstrate the factual basis for his stories, but instead it did the opposite. As Spiegel editor Ullrich Fichtner writes in a lengthy announcement of the scandal, “As an editor and section head, your first reaction when receiving stories like this is to be pleased, not suspicious. You are more interested in evaluating the story based on criteria such as craftsmanship, dramaturgy, and harmonious linguistic images than on whether it’s actually true.”

Clarkson’s criticism—that editors value emotional resonance over veracity—is borne out again in the manner in which Der Spiegel decided to publicize the scandal. In more than 6,000 words, Fichtner recreated the tense, emotional moments that led to Relotius’s downfall. (Fichtner, along with another editor, Matthias Geyer, has since been suspended pending further investigation. Fichtner, who discovered Relotius and is seen as one of his champions, was slated to become the magazine’s new editor in chief on January 1; Geyer is the editor of the Society section where Relotius’s reportage was often featured.) Fichtner’s decision to dramatize—in Spiegel style—what for the magazine were grave events was criticized for being tone deaf. Giovanni di Lorenzo, the editor in chief of Die Zeit, another weekly newspaper and one of Der Spiegel’s rivals, called Fichtner’s article “unconvincing. Because beautiful writing, exciting writing, was also a part of what Relotius is accused of.”

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Two days after Fichtner’s account was published, Der Spiegel published, in its first print issue after the news broke, a 23-page section devoted to the scandal. Within the section, Der Spiegel acknowledges criticism of Fichtner’s piece—since its publication, they write, Fichtner’s has, “for some, become part of the story”—but then, oddly, the editors do it again. This time, Clemens Höges, a longtime journalist and former editor in chief at the magazine, contributes 2,300 words under the heading “A Nightmare,” likening Relotius’s machinations to a “perfect storm.” He describes, in dramatic fashion, a group of editors huddled around a computer as an IT specialist opens Relotius’s email account. What follows is a tick-tock of how Relotius’s deception came to light. Höges writes that, because so many have accused Relotius of prettifying his stories, it’s necessary for the explanation “not to be about beauty, but exclusively about the precision of the facts. But does it do damage to offer them in well-written form?” Höges’s lack of insight, like Fichtner’s, seems to disqualify him from claiming objectivity. Nevertheless, he is one of the three people appointed to a special commission to review the magazine’s handling of Relotius’s work.

 

This is where Spiegel’s deepest betrayal of its readers can be found: in claiming a robust fact-checking system that, when scrutinized, avoids any adversarial relationship between fact-checker and reporter.

 

In addition to Der Spiegel, Relotius had written for other German publications, including Die Zeit, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. He won numerous awards, including Germany’s Reporter of the Year prize in 2018 and CNN’s Journalist of the Year in 2014. His youth recalls Jayson Blair, the twenty-seven-year-old New York Times reporter who resigned in 2003 after fabricating dozens of articles, while his awards bring to mind Janet Cooke, the Washington Post journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981. Here, too, there is a whiff of Der Spiegel capitalizing on the the intrigue, with Fichtner referring to Relotius as “one of Der Spiegel’s best writers” and “a journalistic idol of his generation.”

As Craig Silverman wrote in this publication in 2010, Der Spiegel’s fact-checking and research department, called Dokumentation, is likely the world’s largest, with 60 full-time staff. Axel Pult, then the deputy director of Dokumentation, describes the department as the source of Der Spiegel’s Leserbindung. Given this extensive fact-checking apparatus, how was Relotius able to deceive his readers and his colleagues for so long? Der Spiegel editors write that the magazine did not check facts “as thoroughly as its own statutes stipulate. The editorial staff and research and fact-checking department relied too heavily on the reporter’s presumed credibility.” In Höges’s accounting, he argues that Dokumentation has its limits: Dokumentation can verify a lot, “but what a source told a reporter or what a man in the desert did one night is difficult to completely verify.” Editors accepted Relotius’s excuses when he told them he had forgotten or misplaced recordings or notes. There were public figures in Relotius’s stories who could have been reached for verification, but this is not standard procedure: The Wall Street Journal, quoting a Spiegel spokesman, reported that Der Spiegel’s fact-checking process “does not include contacting any subjects of articles.” This is where Spiegel’s deepest betrayal of its readers can be found: in claiming a robust fact-checking system that, when scrutinized, avoids any adversarial relationship between fact-checker and reporter.

What will Spiegel do going forward to repair its trust with readers? Steffan Klusmann, the editor in chief, has said that a thorough investigation of Relotius’s stories will likely take months. In the meantime, Klusmann has made clear that Der Spiegel, which still has a magazine to run, won’t be offering information on every falsehood investigators uncover. (The editors did announce, however, that they will be pressing charges against Relotius related to his fraudulent handling of donations from readers meant to benefit his sources.) Based on letters from readers printed in the magazine’s special section, many still trust the publication, and Der Spiegel stands by its belief that reporters require freedom and trust to do their jobs. The most likely change may be Spiegel style. In last week’s special section, di Lorenzo was interviewed by two Spiegel editors. He criticized what he called “the cult of beautiful writing.” He concluded, “It’s often the very soberly narrated that are the most moving.”

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Anna Altman is a writer and editor in Washington, DC.