Claas Relotius, Der Spiegel’s professional liar, unmasked by a Spanish journalist

“Saying what’s what”? Not this guy, who won a CNN award on the basis of rank fabrication. I had never even heard of him until today, when a friend on Facebook alerted me to this piece, which I simply HAD to translate:

Nobody believed it. Neither did anyone imagine that it would end up uncovering the biggest journalistic scandal that has shaken the foundations of the German press and set in motion a new debate — the umpteenth — over the profession in all the world. Right now, they believe Juan Moreno and consider him nothing less than a hero. But to unmask a professional liar on a grand scale, capable of deceiving a whole country, Moreno would have to suffer a true Calvary.

He fought to convince his bosses that he, the weakest link in the worker chain, was right, and that Claas Relotius, 33 years old, the star of the German journalistic scene, invented the stories he published. It wasn’t easy, but it was one of those rare occasions in which David succeeds in conquering Goliath. Moreno, a Spanish journalist who grew up in Germany, played the game and won.

His victory is, however, tremendously bittersweet. His success is, at the same time, the disgrace of Der Spiegel, the legendary German publication for which Moreno worked as a contributor. It is difficult to comprehend how the prestigious magazine could encumber itself with a reporter who made up stories, who claimed to have interviewed people he never saw, and visited places he never set foot in. How nobody, not even his bosses, nor the fact-checking department, nor any comrade, realized that more than half the many articles which their star reporter had written were too perfect to be true; they were in reality a fraud.

Moreno arrives almost an hour late at his home, in the north of Berlin. He is just back from testifying before a commission of investigation at Der Spiegel. His wife, also a freelancer, is finishing an article on a laptop on the kitchen table. Three of their four daughters come and go in the space of our three-hour meeting.

“I’m no hero, nor the great defender of the truth. I couldn’t do anything else. I have four daughters and for a moment I saw myself out in the street because my name would appear in an article full of errors,” he begins. “There were five horrible weeks. I knew that something wasn’t right, but they wouldn’t believe me. I was totally frustrated.” He says he spent several weeks almost without sleeping, that he lost eight kilos, and that his heart nearly sank into his feet on the day when his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter clearly pronounced a name: Claas Relotius. “I got up and lay down with that name in my mouth.”

The everyday life of the Moreno household was thrown into upheaval at the beginning of last November, as a result of a report titled “Jaeger’s Border”. The reporter was in Mexico, covering the migrant caravan, when the magazine called and told him that he was to write a report along with Relotius, the publication’s big name. Moreno was to accompany a migrant up to the border and recount the journey, and in the United States, Relotius would be embedded with a group of civilian militia members determined to stop the influx of migrants.

Moreno wasn’t enthused about the idea. He didn’t know Relotius, but he had once read one of his articles, on a Cuban tax consultant, which grated on him. The work began. Moreno received a half-written article and noticed details which didn’t add up for him. He wrote to the fact-checking department, where some 60 people work. They paid no attention to him.

Later, Relotius sent him a new draft in which there was a new final scene, in which a militiaman fired at something that was moving, insinuating that it was a migrant. This passage had not appeared in the first version. “It’s impossible that a good journalist could be present for such a scene and not include it from the first moment,” he thought.

From that moment on, Moreno took up a desperate fight for the truth which robbed him of sleep and embroiled him in a frenetic battle against the clock to save his hide and his name, which wound up appearing irretrievably under the false report. He discovered an article published in the US press which suspiciously resembled that of Relotius. In that one, as well, there appeared a militiaman named Jaeger, but there were details of the personages which did not coincide. Later, Moreno recognized a militiaman whom he had seen in an award-winning documentary, in one of the photos published by Der Spiegel and bought from the New York Times — Tim Foley. He was famous, but Relotius didn’t give his name, and said he would not allow himself to be photographed, and for that reason, the photos were bought from the New York Times.

The incongruities mounted, and Moreno wrote to the head of the Society department, which had commissioned the reportage. “They paid no attention to me and asked me to come to Hamburg to talk with them.” Later, Moreno received a phone call from Relotius, who was aware of his indignation. “Juan, you have to tell me some things,” he began. Moreno asked him some questions, without revealing his discoveries, and decided to let him talk. “I realized that he was lying, and that there was a very big problem.”

“Jaeger’s Border” turned out to be the tip of an iceberg whose dimensions have yet to be measured. In total, Relotius has written 60 pieces for Der Spiegel, in addition to other German periodicals, which must now dive into their archives in search of the truth. The publication has decided to “assume by default that all the articles written by Relotius were fabrications”, according to an announcement, shortly after the discovery of the scandal, by director Steffen Klusmann. “As the editors of DER SPIEGEL, we have to admit that we have failed to a considerable extent. Relotius succeeded in circumventing and abrogating all the quality assurance mechanisms this company has in place […] At times, the protagonists in his stories actually did exist, but at others they did not. Most of the time, details about their backgrounds and fates were invented.” In late January, the magazine published the first installment of its findings, whose result is hair-raising.

But during those desperate weeks in November, Der Spiegel did not see so clearly, and they began to suspect that Moreno had something to hide. After all, Relotius was their man. He was on their team and had even won the grand prize of German journalism four times, most recently in 2018, and had been named Journalist of the Year by CNN. He was also a guy who fit in well with the editorial department. “Everyone at Der Spiegel appreciated him. His buddies told me: ‘If you had gotten to know him, you would not have done this’.” He was about to be promoted.

But Relotius was, above all, a storyteller. He achieved what others never dreamed of attaining. He claimed to have spoken with protagonists who refused to speak with others. His stories were well written, full of voices, action and personages; they were candies too sweet for any department chief to question. “As head of any section, your first reaction upon receiving stories like those was of satisfaction, not suspicion,” said Ulrich Fichtner of the magazine, in a lengthy reconstruction of the case. “Relotius always turned in excellent stories […] he was an especially valuable employee.” Fichtner, called to a position of high responsibility, describes him as someone “modest, lofty, reserved, attentive, sometimes overly serious. But on the whole, the type of person whose parents you would like to congratulate.”

Moreno, however, is an outsider. A freelance reporter who works from his home in Berlin and barely sets foot in the Spiegel head office in Hamburg. He is an exotic voice, the son of a Spaniard who works in a tire factory, who emigrated to Germany from Spain when he was a year and a half old (he was born in 1972). He worked for various media and had a column in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, before making the jump to Der Spiegel in 2007.

For that reason, in part, when Moreno questioned Relotius’s work, suspicions turned against him. “They told me to understand that this could have serious consequences for me. That I had dared to mess with God. I was convinced that I was going to lose my job and that nobody would hire me with such precedents.” That’s where the real battle began.

Moreno spent five weeks dismantling Relotius’s stories. He took advantage of a working trip to the United States to launch a secret mission. He sought out the supposed interviewees from the border report. He drove 800 kilometres in order to find Tim Foley. He showed him a photo of Relotius. Foley had never seen Relotius in his life. He did the same with Chris Maloof, another supposed interviewee. The same thing happened. He captured those interviews on video and returned to Hamburg. Relotius argued that in his reportage, there was talk of illegal activities and that no one would go on video saying he had done so. They continued to disbelieve him.

Moreno broadened his investigation and drew from the library. He found an article in which it appeared that Relotius had spoken with the parents of Colin Kaepernick and discovered that the family of the football player who protested against racism had refused to speak to the US press, much less the German. The more he investigated, the worse it all smelled.

What happened after that has been told in the pages of Der Spiegel in various articles in which the publication intoned a resounding mea culpa. On December 3, at 3:05 [a.m., German time], a woman named Janet sent an e-mail to the magazine. She was in charge of the group of vigilantes who supposedly had accompanied Relotius in Arizona. She asked how it was possible that he could have written an article on them without having been there. Relotius falsified the note to make it seem like the woman was asking why he had spent so little time with them. But ten days later, definitive proof arrived.

The chiefs of the publication met with a computer specialist. Moreno had convinced them to access the server. They confirmed that Relotius had manipulated the e-mail and that he had never been with the patrollers in Arizona. The previous morning, one of the impostor’s bosses had confronted him after discovering another fabrication, this time on Facebook. Relotius broke down and confessed. He said he had been motivated by “fear of failure” and that “the pressure not to fail kept growing because he was having more success”. He packed his things and permanently left the magazine which had placed him at the peak of German journalism.

On December 22, Der Spiegel published a special issue with a red cover and large white letters which read: “Saying what’s what”. Those were the words of the magazine’s founder, Rudolf Augstein, the same which occupied a place of honor in the Hamburg editorial offices and which Relotius betrayed to the bitter end. The issue dedicated 23 pages to the matter. In it, they confirmed that the alarms should have been raised on numerous occasions. Such as when Relotius asked the translators of the international edition that they not publish his pieces in English. Or when he asked that they not publish on the web a photo from the print edition.

The magazine has created a commission of investigation with in-house veterans, as well as the former director of the Berliner Zeitung. For months they will analyze “how Claas Relotius could falsify stories, invent protagonists, deceive colleagues and make a mockery of the systems of quality control, and that there need to be changes in the organization,” according to a message from a spokeswoman of the publication which does not offer more details as long as the investigation is in progress. At the moment, all the articles by Relotius appear on the web with a note warning that they could be falsified.

Reporter Forum, a citizen initiative for good reporting, has stated that Relotius begged their pardon and has returned his four grand prizes from them.

Meanwhile, it has transpired that Relotius asked for money from readers who took an interest in the victims that appeared in his stories. So far, it’s not known how much money he collected, or where it went to any NGOs. He admitted, via his lawyers, that he ha received money from readers, but assured that he would donate it to humanitarian causes. The magazine confirmed that part of that money did indeed go to an NGO. In the same communiqué, the attorneys explained that their client had admitted to “presenting false and erroneous facts on numerous occasions. He falsified and invented them.” They say that he “regrets” what happened and that in no case did he want to “give ammunition to those who point to his reportage with dirty political intentions, as proof of the existence of so-called ‘fake news’.” When contacted at their office in Hamburg, the learned attorneys explained that neither they nor Relotius himself wanted, at that moment, to offer further explanations.

At this point, the truths are mixed up with the lies in a tangle which will take much more time to unsnarl. But now, some political actors have smelled blood and moved in for the kill, because the Relotius affair came to light at a time when populist forces are fighting to discredit traditional media. The German far-right is rubbing its hands over a case which it considers to be the ultimate proof that the media are nothing less than fake-news factories. The US ambassador in Berlin, Richard Grenell, Donald Trump’s strongman in Europe, has taken advantage of it to launch a campaign against Der Spiegel. He accuses of the magazine of “anti-Americanism”, further muddying the already sour relations between Washington and Berlin.

Grenell’s accusation is based in one of Relotius’s most hallucinatory inventions. In a piece titled “In a small town”, he describes a place in Minnesota which is supposedly an example of a hotbed of Trump voters where he was sent. The tissue of lies which appear in that report was fine-tooth-combed by Michele Anderson and Jake Krohn, two residents of Fergus Falls, who were outraged upon reading it. They listed, in a detailed article, Relotius’s inventions; among them, what appears on a billboard upon entering the town, and an interview with a man who says he has never been with a woman or seen the sea, while on his Facebook page he appears on the beach with his girlfriend. And so on. “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 rest is uninhibited fiction,” wrote Anderson, who sent a message to Der Spiegel’s Twitter account last April, in which she accused the author of writing fiction, and which was lost in a sea of digital interactions. The embarrassment was such that Der Spiegel decided to send their Washington correspondent to redo the story and also beg pardon.

Beyond the magazine’s walls, “Spiegelgate” has unleashed an intense global debate about the future of journalism in the age of fake news, hypermeasurement of audiences, and the compulsion to make stories more attractive even at the risk of sacrificing the truth. Or, as media analyst Jeff Jarvis puts it, “the danger of the seduction of the narrative format”. These days, some journalism gurus are warning of the risk of twisting stories to make them more attractive, as though reality were not enough. This is just one of the debates surrounding the devastated editors of Der Spiegel, one of the pillars of European journalism.

Meanwhile, Juan Moreno still can’t believe all that has happened to him. He says it has affected him greatly to discover the power that persuasion can have, even among veteran journalists who are long in the tooth. “He fooled them all and he could have fooled me too, if I had known him.” Moreno recognizes that he thought nobody was capable of doing such a thing, and that was what held him back. “I believe that deep down, I thought there were certain norms which everyone holds to.”

Der Spiegel now faces a profound remodelling, while it awaits the results of an investigation in which it anticipates nothing good. Relotius maintains his silence. And Moreno, who has received hundreds of congratulatory messages and offers, has returned to his normal life, that of a freelance reporter.

Translation mine, except the excerpt from Steffen Klusmann in Der Spiegel, which was already in English and is quoted verbatim. Links as in original.

So it seems that we have a journalistic fraud here on the same level as Jack Kelley, who fabricated (among other things) tear-jerking tales of Cuban migrants during the Special Period, when they were supposedly fleeing in droves from an economically devastated post-Soviet Cuba. Kelley wrote for USA Today, which is roughly equivalent to Der Spiegel in that it is a newsmagazine dealing with domestic and international affairs. Not surprisingly, both fabricators picked Latin America (or its borders) as their exotic setting, counting on editors as well as readers to be too enchanted to do any fact-checking. And they would have gotten away with it, too, were it not for those pesky kids…namely, their fellow reporters (and freelancers, even) who doggedly followed their noses when something smelled hinky.

Yes, fake news IS a thing…but it’s not the thing that Donnie and his brainwashed followers keep saying it is. For them, “fake news” is anything that paints Dear Leader Donnie in a bad (i.e. all too true) light. Their idea of “truth” is 180 degrees removed from the actual thing. And yes, I’m sure they’ll be all too happy to seize on one lying Dutchman’s tales as “proof” that their tinfoil-wrapped ideas are suddenly all valid. Never mind if those tales actually turn out to serve THEIR narrative or not.

But if there IS one thing that these fake stories prove about credulity in the media, it’s that those who know how to polish an apple (or a turd) can get people to swallow complete garbage…willingly and happily. As Donnie’s supporters, the same who scream “Fake news!” in concert with their Cheeto-skinned Führer, have already inadvertently demonstrated all too clearly themselves.

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This entry was posted in Confessions of a Bad German, Crapagandarati, Cuba, Libre (de los Yanquis), Der Drumpf, EuroPeons, Going Dutch, Isn't It Ironic?, Mexican Standoffs, Newspeak is Nospeak, The United States of Amnesia, Under the Name of Spain. Bookmark the permalink.