HAMBURG — Fake news wasnt invented by the Russians.
The New York Times had Jayson Blair, who faked dozens of articles and interviews over the years. U.S.A. Today had Jack Kelley, who made up sensational stories about events he had not witnessed and places he had not seen. In both cases, the editors were forced to resign.
Now, its Der Spiegels turn. The fabled German news magazines award-winning reporter Claas Relotius, 33, a legend in his time, replaced facts with fantasy. He quoted people he had not interviewed. He described streets and buildings he had seen on Google Earth only. Painted in exquisite detail, the scenes were nothing more than figments of his imagination.
For Spiegel, which prides itself on having the best fact-checking department in the business, this is Armageddon.
To salvage its honor, it has launched a top-to-bottom investigation of the publication, ruthlessly trying to answer the Big Question that tortured the Times and U.S.A. Today as well: How could this have happened — and to us, the best of the best?
Why did the system set up to corroborate every fact and assertion fail to stop the fake artist?
The issue transcends continents and publications. As Juan Moreno, the colleague who first raised suspicions about Relotius work, put it in a video interview on Spiegel Online: “People are people, and journalists are people.” Basically, what we tend to forget is that journalists are human beings driven by vanity, pride, and greed for fame and advancement.
This may well be true, but then the question becomes: Why did the system set up to corroborate every fact and assertion, every quote and statistic, fail to expose and stop the fake artist?
Relotius was a most brilliant counterfeiter: His pieces are full of minute detail so specific, so precise, as to appear necessarily authentic. And why doubt a celebrated reporter who describes a small-town street corner as if it were etched into his photographic memory?
“He could not have made it up,” his fact-checker may have surmised. “It is so perfect, you feel as if you are standing there yourself.” Too bad Google Earth can do that for you from 5,000 miles away as the all-seeing camera captures the flowerpot on the stoop.
Relotius holds the Reemtsma Liberty Award aloft in Berlin last year | Eventpress/Golejewski EPA-EFE
Like Jayson Blair, Relotius was a wunderkind of journalism. He won Germanys Reporterpreis, a coveted annual award, four times. Why would you insult this giant by pestering him with picayune questions? Only small-minded tax officials running through an audit would probe and poke.
Fact-checkers are humans, too, and so they will not insult the dignity and authority of the greats by doubting their words.
Something similar happened in 1983 — when, in perhaps the biggest, most memorable scandal of them all, German magazine Stern published the “diaries of Adolf Hitler.
These 63 volumes — which the magazine trumpeted would turn our view of Nazi history on its head — were fiction from beginning to end, the product of a forger who pocketed millions from the publication.
How did it happen? The famed British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper certified the authenticity of the forged diaries — and the ennobling verdict clinched the case, silencing the last doubters and convincing Stern to go ahead.
The scandal is a wake-up call to Relotius editors back home — and everyone else.
In Relotius case, another, a more insidious dynamic may have been at work — the unarticulated expectations of editors as they send off their reporters, and their anticipation the reported piece that comes back will confirm what they already know to be true.
Among Relotius most celebrated articles were his pieces on Donald Trumps America. They paint a picture of the country Europeans love to despise.
“In This Small Town” — a 7,300-word story about Fergus Falls, where “people pray for Donald Trump on Sundays,” confirmed what we all “know.” It was a tableau of “red-neck” America — a gun-toting, intolerant, anti-immigrant and irrationally religious nation.
The fact-checking work of two Fergus Falls citizens revealed this to be a fabrication. Not only does Relotius starring character, city administrator Andrew Bremseth, not carry a Beretta 9mm to work, he doesnt even own one. Neither does the town have a sign that reads “Mexicans stay out.”
The offices of Der Spiegel in Hamburg, Germany | Morris MacMatzen/Getty Images
Relotius report was about perpetuating “an ugly and exaggerated stereotype,” the residents concluded, unsurprisingly. “We are either backward, living in the past and have our heads up our asses, or we are like dumb endearing animals that just need a little attention in order to keep us from eating the rest of the world alive.”
The scandal is a wake-up call to Relotius editors back home — and everyone else. Its unfortunately all too easy to fall into the same trap they did. Why check carefully if this is what we have always known and what confirms our beliefs? People are people, and journalists are people — with their unarticulated prejudices and stereotypes.
We need these scandals, embarrassing and awful as they are. They teach journalists that their first responsibility is to facts and the truth. Whatever your politics, some stories are just too good to be true.
Josef Joffe serves on the editorial council of German newspaper Die Zeit in Hamburg. He is also a fellow at Stanfords Hoover Institution.