MEDIA

When An Award-Winning Journalist Came To Town, These 2 Smelled A Phony

A conversation with Michele Anderson and Jake Krohn, the two rural Americans who figured out that Der Spiegel journalist Claas Relotius was a fraud.
Michele Anderson and Jake Krohn say it started with a snub in their rural Minnesota town.
Michele Anderson and Jake Krohn say it started with a snub in their rural Minnesota town.

Michele Anderson and Jake Krohn knew about Claas Relotius’ deception before almost anyone, even if they could have never guessed the full scale of it.

Before Relotius even published his feature in Der Spiegel last year about his time in their small town of Fergus Falls, Minnesota, they could already tell something was off. For one thing, he didn’t seem to have much interest in actually speaking with the town’s residents for his slice-of-life feature about rural Trump country. When Anderson tried to say hello, Relotius all but ignored her as he took a picture of an American flag, she said.

But when they actually started to read what he had written about their hometown, it was even worse than they could have expected, a stereotype-thick piece of near-fiction, seemingly filled with more inaccuracies than accuracies, and with stories and people that didn’t sound true to life. 

On Wednesday, Der Spiegel announced that it had fired Relotius, an award-winning reporter and editor, after discovering that he had “falsified his articles on a grand scale and even invented characters, deceiving both readers and his colleagues.”

“It has now become clear that Claas Relotius, 33 years old, one of DER SPIEGEL’s best writers, winner of multiple awards and a journalistic idol of his generation, is neither a reporter nor a journalist,” Der Spiegel’s Ullrich Fichtner wrote in his piece about the controversy. “Rather, he produces beautifully narrated fiction. Truth and lies are mixed together in his articles and some, at least according to him, were even cleanly reported and free of fabrication. Others, he admits, were embellished with fudged quotes and other made-up facts. Still others were entirely fabricated.”

Among Relotius’ fabricated articles was his insulting portrayal of Fergus Falls.

Shortly after Der Spiegel’s announcement, Anderson rushed out a report of her own on Medium. Since Relotius published the falsified article about their town the previous year, she and Krohn had been fact-checking everything he contended in it. “There are so many lies here,” she wrote, “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.”

The post is perhaps more impressive than anything the award-winning Relotius ever published ― a meticulously researched piece of journalism that lays out the evidence for the reader to see. In the post, Anderson also expressed her larger frustrations with how the media have covered rural America since Trump’s presidential victory. She gave the post a fitting headline: “Der Spiegel Journalist Messed With the Wrong Small Town.”

We spoke with Anderson and Krohn on Thursday about what it was like to watch Relotius’ scam unfold in real time and the larger issues with how the media have covered rural towns like their own over the last two years. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

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HuffPost: What was your initial reaction when you first read the story?

Jake Krohn: Kind of confused disbelief. We did a quick translate through Google Translate of the first couple paragraphs to see what the tone of the story would be like, and it wasn’t good ― those first couple paragraphs were kind of disturbing and strange ― so we did the rest, and the whole time reading through it, [it] seemed like a strange, alien landscape, where you sort of know the landmarks and you know the people he’s talking about. But at the same time, it just didn’t jibe with your actual knowledge of the facts on the ground.

Reading it, what was the lie that stood at you as the most brazen or insulting?

Michele Anderson: It’s hard to pick just one because it was the combination of everything. But I mean there’s some very imaginative descriptions of the community that just came from nowhere. The one that’s really interesting and seems so random is he said that he went on a high school trip, he accompanied a group of students that went to New York City from Fergus Falls, and that when they got to New York City, they skipped all the really important, classic landmarks like the Statue of Liberty and they only went to Trump Tower.

So, not only was there no New York trip, but in what world would a group of high schoolers skip all of the places that everybody wants to see in New York City, no matter what political leaning you are? That’s just one example, but that one’s standing out to me right now because I just don’t really know ― he started to close up the article with that story, and it just seemed so, um, out of left field that he thought he could get away with that.

One thing that I found personally shocking was that he didn’t even just make up information about completely made-up people but that he attached information to real people with real lives.

Anderson: Absolutely, he really only talked to the people really to get photographs of them, and then he went off on his own. 

You talked in the piece about him really having a chance to talk about the many complex perspectives of your town and life in rural America. I was wondering if you could kind of tell me a bit more about that, Michele? What do you feel like is missing when people are kind of helicoptering in and trying to tell the “rural America in the age of Trump” story? And what frustrates you about those stories?

Anderson: It’s been feeling like, not just with this journalist but with other articles that I read about small towns, that they have the story in mind that they want to tell, and they’re just looking for a little bit of evidence to back it up.

I think it’s particularly frustrating for me because I chose to move here to Fergus Falls when I was 29, and I moved from Portland, Oregon. It was a very intentional decision to kind of just return back to my rural roots and kind of figure out what the future holds for rural places. There’s a lot of creative people on both sides of the political spectrum that are really working hard right now to reinvent rural economies. Those stories are absolutely fascinating, and it’s frustrating that there’s not much time spent on those.

There have been some good articles in more recent months, but even The New York Times recently shared an article ― the writer suggested instead of complaining about a lack of jobs in rural places, people should just move to the city. So there’s a lot of misunderstanding, and the more stuff that gets out like Claas’ article, the more work we have to do. And meanwhile, we’re just trying to do work at the ground level and fix our communities.

While you were doing the fact-check and talking to people in the community about the reporter and the story, how did you find other people felt about it?

Anderson: Other people felt pretty similarly. There was definitely some buzz on social media when it started to get around the community. People were pretty angry, and they were also kind of amused. I think, in particular, the people who were profiled felt used and powerless. So, it was a mixture of reactions. There was a lot of conversation about how do we respond to this? But, out of respect to a couple of the individuals that were profiled, there was also kind of a consensus that we didn’t want the article to get even more attention. So we were kind of in this limbo of “OK, how do we defend ourselves with this getting out even more?” So when the news broke yesterday morning, Jake and I kind of had everything ready to go, and we were just like, you know, we have to do this. People need this information right now, and it’s not about us anymore.

Even considering what you guys knew about the guy, were you surprised by the depths of the fabrications in all of these stories?

Anderson: I was surprised it was so huge, that we were a small part of something enormous. One of the German public radio people we talked to said that this is the second-biggest media scandal in German history, since the “Hitler Diaries.” So yeah, we kind of thought maybe we were just victims to like one lazy article. To think that he was doing this in other places and to other individuals, it’s astounding that he got away with it for so long and that he could live with himself having that work out there.

You talked in your post about the story he could have told about your town, and I’m wondering what story you would like to see written.

Anderson: It is a conservative area, but I think what I was referencing is that there’s a lot of complexities within what you see. We’re not just what color we show up [as] on the voting map. That’s not the [only] story we have. Fergus Falls, in particular, has had quite a few younger people moving to this area from all over the place, partially because there’s a really strong arts community ― that’s the field that I work in ― and I guess the complexity that I would have loved to see is how we do deal with these pretty divisive political views and still make a really strong community. The ways that we both work together but also the ways that we push back on the status quo that maybe gets us stuck sometimes. So I’d still love to hear both sides of the story.

I’m not saying it’s been easy to live here as a young woman that is pretty liberal and has dealt with some sexism. But just sort of how we’re navigating that and pushing back on it and trying to educate across both aisles ― and also the generational divides and the different ways to think about diversity. In some ways, my social and professional circle here in Fergus Falls is more diverse than it was in Portland, Oregon, partially because I have to work with people, and I have friends that are from age 20 to 85. I didn’t have that same level of different perspectives and experiences in Portland. It was too easy to find my people and just be comfortable there.

Jake, what specific, more complex story would you tell about your town?

Krohn: How do we navigate the culture of a small town when we can’t always align with the same groups and we need to make things works?

Anderson: I think another story I would love somebody to look into is Fergus Falls is a predominantly white community, but what I think about a lot is how do we raise kids in a white rural community that are adept and ready to be adults in a world that is multicultural. They don’t get a lot of experience with other cultures here. (Although that’s changing too. Another piece of the story: The demographics are shifting in rural places.) So how do we raise kids? Many of them are going to move to places that are much more diverse than where they grew up. How are we getting them ready for that? And to be thoughtful and good citizens of the world?

I wanted to ask about your question with Pablo Rodriguez. To see someone’s story and life sort of told so inaccurately for political purposes ― how did he feel about everything that happened?

Krohn: Pablo is kind of a hard guy to read. He doesn’t have a lot of strong emotion, and he’s always just kind of got this grin on his face. I guess I don’t know. You maybe read in our piece that the server Israel kind of lends his name to Pablo’s character. [Pablo said that,] “Yes, you know, out of all of us, Israel’s probably seen the most discrimination.” For [him] personally, Pablo said here in Fergus Falls, he didn’t encounter that. He is beloved, super-talented, super-smart kid. I guess to see your life kind of spun like that or changed in that way is really something. And to do that in a foreign publication where you have kind of little opportunity for recourse or to set it straight or maybe it’s not even something that you end up seeing, that really seems like a low blow to me.

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