Anderson & Krohn: Der Spiegel journalist messed with the wrong small town

Der Spiegel Dec 23, 2018

Real life is boring. It doesn’t generate clicks, or ad revenue. People going to work and coming home spending time with their families doesn’t sell newspapers. No one wants to read about that.

A journalist for Der Spiegel was sent to the US to write about small town voters and the people that voted for President Trump. The problem is, it’s probably pretty boring. It won’t generate clicks. The real story won’t engender great interest.

That’s the problem that faced Claas Relotius. He visited a small town in America that voted for President Trump. And, with some dramatic license, the town he found wouldn’t generate interest in his paper.

What’s a good journalist to do? Just make stuff up, I guess.

From the article:

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 it's 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.


I previously said I don’t read the news. I don’t trust it. I’m not going to claim that most journalists outright fabricate things. But, I, too, have read articles that are hilariously wrong. If you’ve ever been interviewed for an article, just for fun, follow up and read the article. It’s always fun to learn what was reported as opposed to what you actually stated.

As I read through this, I’m reminded of a proposition by Michael Crichton. He proposed a new effect called Gell-Mann Amnesia. He describes it as:

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them. In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

Michael Crichton, Why Speculate?

Reading about the world from journalists doesn’t work. There’s no incentive for them to get things right. The only thing that matters is that sell papers.

Go out and talk to people. You’ll learn far more about the world from the inhabitants of it rather than through the filter of sensationalism. If you want to understand life in small town America, do something absolutely bonkers: ask people! Don’t just blindly trust people with an incentive to lie and make up stories.