In these days before Christmas, it’s very cold and windy in Fergus Falls, a town of around 14,000 inhabitants in the state of Minnesota. There’s also a bit of snow on the ground. Claas Relotius published a very long feature article about the small town and its inhabitants in DER SPIEGEL in March 2017. When I read it at the time, I thought to myself: It seems really, really long.
The story carried the headline, “In a Small Town,” and was intended as an attempt to describe and better grasp Trump voters. As we now know, the writer largely invented the events and characters portrayed in the story — just as he did those in almost all his articles.
I arrived in Fergus Falls on Thursday, the day after DER SPIEGEL went public with internal revelations about Relotius’ journalistic fraud. I’m here to describe the city as it really is, to process what has happened, but also to better understand what Relotius did during the time he spent here.
The fairy tale begins right at the beginning when the author writes that the bus to Fergus Falls rolls toward a dark forest that looks like “dragons could be living in it.” I looked for that forest. It doesn’t exist, even though there are trees in and around Fergus Falls and small forests here and there.
You get overcome by strange feelings when you travel to hunt down the fabrications of an ex-colleague, but it’s even weirder when you try to compare reality with the fake images that his story ingrained in your head. You meet people who resemble Relotius’ figures, but the longer you talk to them, the greater the distance grows between those depictions and the reality.
In some cases, the names that were used in the fabricated story are the same as a person in the town, like Maria Rodriguez (“a mother and restaurant owner from Mexico”) and the city administrator. But in others, they are fake, as with “Neil Becker” (“a worker who had shoveled coal all his life and, one day, no longer understood his party, the Democrats”) or “Israel Rodriguez” (the alleged son of Maria). Ultimately, you come to the realization that there is no actual connection between the real people and the characters described in the article.
A Figment of His Imagination
The Fergus Falls in Relotius’ article is a figment of his imagination. He admitted as much in the confession he made to his bosses at DER SPIEGEL. But the scale of the fabrications in this article quickly became clear — due in large part to the work of two people who have been pursuing and reviewing the article for the past year and a half. Last Wednesday, they posted their own devastating fact check on the web. The two are Michele Anderson and Jake Krohn. They wrote to the @DerSPIEGEL Twitter account after the article’s publication to point out the mistakes, but nobody in the editorial office in Hamburg noticed. The two didn’t get an answer at the time. (You can read more about the problems they found with the story here.)
Anderson works for a nonprofit organization that supports local artists in Fergus Falls; and Krohn, an IT consultant, collaborates with her occasionally. They also happen to be friends. After Relotius’ article appeared, they fed the German version of the story into Google Translate and at first thought the program had gone haywire given the absurdity of the translations it churned out. At the point they realized that it wasn’t the translation, but the actual content of the story itself, that was the problem, they began preparing their reply. They wanted to expose the lies.
It’s Thursday afternoon, the two are sitting in the office of the artist’s nonprofit Springboard for the Arts, where Anderson works. They’re still surprised by the number of people in the village now thanking them for their work. They’ve become heroes here in Fergus Falls. Two days later, when I was having dinner with Anderson, a woman at the table next to us asked for her autograph. The question sounded only half in jest.
Krohn and Anderson played a role in making Fergus Falls one of the central places in the affair surrounding former DER SPIEGEL reporter Claas Relotius, who has admitted to falsifying and fabricating numerous articles that ran in the magazine. The town is an example of how far Relotius went in distorting and twisting reality. The town also illustrates the degree to which an editorial team that liked to appear skeptical, suspicious and sharp-toothed had shown almost blind faith in Relotius. The editorial team I work for. It’s painful for me to even have to write that. On Thursday, the editors wrote: “DER SPIEGEL did not check the 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.” Michele Anderson says Relotius orchestrated the “the easy narrative of decline” here.
According to Relotius’ portrayal, “Neil Becker,” a Trump voter, was a hard-working coal shoveler at the local power plant who had spent his working life attending to a conveyor belt and was reluctant to travel. Douglas Becker, on the other hand, the real Becker whose photo was featured in the article, ran a gym on Lincoln Avenue for 34 years and is familiar with almost every airport in the United States. He delivers packages for UPS. He also sells used records on the side.
He laughs when I ask him if he’s angry. We’re eating pizza at a restaurant on Union Avenue that belongs to the mayor. “I first thought the article was a piece of satire,” says Becker. “I don’t feel offended at all.” He says he thought the writer was friendly — and he still does today. A nice guy. Becker says he’s worried about him.
Then he talks about the marathons he has ran — Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago — through half of America. He says he actually did vote for Trump because he wanted a man in Washington who “shakes things up a bit.”
To the extent that events can be reconstructed, Relotius lived on the outskirts of the town for 38 days from mid-January to the end of February 2017. He had five weeks to report his feature. That’s an eternity in journalism, and most reporters can only dream of the luxury of getting that much time to spend on a story. At one point, I wonder why he invented “Neil Becker” when Douglas Becker is actually far more interesting than the cliché of a coal-shoveling Trump supporter.
Maria Rodriguez, the second purported Trump voter in Relotius’ supposed “feature,” can be met a 45-minute drive outside of Fergus Falls, where she can be seen waiting tables. According to Relotius’ account, she suffers from a kidney disease, she’s out of money and dreams of returning to her home country of Mexico.
The truth is that Rodriguez is totally healthy and feels very much at home in Minnesota. She only recently opened a restaurant with her husband. She couldn’t have voted for Trump, anyway, because even though she has a work and residency permit, she doesn’t have a U.S. passport, meaning she’s ineligible to vote. “I’m always trying to see the best in people,” Rodriguez says. “I trusted this reporter and was disappointed, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t be open to other people in the future anymore.”
A Most Forgiving City
Fergus Falls appears to be the most forgiving city in the Western Hemisphere. People here seem to outdo each other with their affability. The first sentence Mayor Ben Schierer throws at me is: “Apology accepted! What do you want to drink?”
Schierer stands in front of the brick oven at his pizzeria. He’s a man with a small and wiry frame and the laughter of an Olympic champion. “Maybe something good will come out of this eventually,” he says. “We now have the opportunity to tell the true story.”
The true story, the mayor says, is that Fergus Falls is a beautiful, lovable little town. Yes, he says, there are different political opinions and also problems. The city’s only shopping mall has moved away, some shops on Lincoln Avenue have shuttered, the train station has been out of commission for quite some time. “The people, who live here, want to live here. They chose to be here. We’re proud to live in this little town.”
Later, in his office, Schierer shows me plans for a new playground and a small amphitheater, with market stalls around it. It makes me think that the made-up article likely injured more than just local pride here. It’s probably that people have also been left feeling unrecognized in their drive to push the town forward. Relotius had described the place as a backwater. In his fabricated article, people here travel only rarely and prefer to watch “X-Files” or game shows in the evening rather than read the opinion pages of The New York Times. In his article, he wrote that they aren’t racists, but then someone, in Relotius’ imagination, put up a sign with the inscription at the entrance to the village: “Mexican’s Keep Out.” That sign, everbody tells me, never existed.
The longer I stay here, the more I get the impression that I’m conducting an investigation at the scene of a crime. “Fox & Friends,” the president’s favorite show, interviews the mayor, the local TV station has sent a camera team, the German tabloid Bild newspaper was set to send a reporter and the U.S. Embassy in Germany is also getting involved.
Not everyone is willing too move on so quickly. There are also people in Fergus Falls who are still upset, including the city administrator. He is depicted in Relotius’ article as a gun lover who carries his Beretta pistol around the Town Hall, seems rather childish and naïve, has never been to the sea before and is rebuffed as a Trump voter when he awkwardly tries to chat up a woman on the bus.
The truth is that he’s been in a relationship for three years, he has of course spent time at the seaside, you can’t carry a gun inside Town Hall and he doesn’t take the bus. Nothing about the depiction of him is true. He doesn’t have a TV in his office that he tunes in to CNN, as Relotius wrote, there’s no stuffed wild boar anywhere. Nothing is true.
‘A Gem of a Town’
We sit opposite each other for an hour in a Town Hall meeting room and talk. I apologize on behalf of DER SPIEGEL, which has now become part of my job. And yet the city administrator isn’t primarily concerned about all the false details that have been written about him. Nor does he want to set the record straight about anything. He says he doesn’t care about the wild boar. What upsets him is this entire messed-up story about his town. He doesn’t want to be quoted again and he doesn’t want to have his photo taken.
He has only one sentence he’d like to state for the record: “This is a wonderful, loving community — it’s a gem of a town.”
Of course, this story doesn’t have a happy ending.
Spending three days in the real Fergus Falls, and not in the imaginary one, provides a lesson in humility. Of course, this town also has its problems, but people are doing their best — they’re friendly and hard-working. Yes, it may be true that the majority here voted for Donald Trump, but it is also true that the people of Fergus Falls are far more interesting and complex than the caricatures dreamed up by Claas Relotius.
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