Merry Christmas to media critics: Elite German reporter visits American heartland and ....

The following post doesn’t have anything to do with Christmas.

Well, wait. I can imagine that there are conservative critics of the mainstream press — especially in its most elite forms — who would see the following headline as a kind of Christmas present. And later on in this post, there will be a religion-and-politics angle to this scandal. So hold that thought.

But let’s start with the end of tale, care of this NBC News headline: “German reporter stripped of CNN 'Journalist of the Year' awards for fabricating stories.”

Hey fans of great journalism movies: We are talking about a kind of sequel to “Shattered Glass,” only with a reporter who was working for an elite news publication — Der Spiegel — as opposed to a liberal journal of editorial opinion, commentary and news. Here’s the top of that Associated Press, as featured by NBC News:

BERLIN — A German journalist who was found to have fabricated numerous articles is being stripped of two awards he received in 2014 from CNN International, the broadcaster said Thursday.

In a statement to The Associated Press, CNN International said the independent panel of judges who awarded Claas Relotius the Journalist of the Year and Print Journalist of the Year awards four years ago decided unanimously to remove them following revelations about his fraud.

German magazine Der Spiegel, where Relotius worked as a freelancer and later full-time, said Wednesday that he had fabricated interviews and facts in at least 14 articles.

The publication, one of Germany's leading news outlets, said the 33-year-old had committed journalistic fraud "on a grand scale" over a number of years, including fabricating elements of an article about an American woman who he said volunteered to witness the executions of death row inmates.

Now it’s time for the flashback to a feature at Medium that got lots and lots of attention — in America and, perhaps, in Germany. The headline: “Der Spiegel journalist messed with the wrong small town.”

The key is that one of the most celebrated newsrooms in Europe decided to probe the dark heart of Middle America in the age of Donald Trump. You know: How do solid, faithful, ordinary Americans in the heartland make peace with their support for a demon? That sort of thing.

Frankly, I have been bracing myself for exactly this kind of feature during the Christmas season, a kind of “It’s Christmas in Donald Trump’s America” vision of life in some heavily evangelical Protestant town in the Bible Belt.

Well, that hasn’t happened. Yet.

But you can get a sense of what Der Spiegel was up to in the following chunk of the Medium tell-all essay by Michele Anderson and Jake Krohn. In this case, the role of Middle America is played by Fergus Falls, Minn.

I know I’m not the only rural advocate and citizen that is wary about the anthropological gaze on rural America in the wake of the 2016 elections, and has struggled with how or whether to respond to the sudden attention and questions, when before we really didn’t matter to mass media at all.

Suddenly we do matter, but only because everyone wants to be the hero pundit that cracks the code of the current rural psyche. There are only two things those writers seem to have concluded or are able to pitch to their editors — we are either backwards, living in the past and have our heads up our asses, or we’re like dumb, endearing animals that just need a little attention in order to keep us from eating the rest of the world alive.

With that in mind, I was slightly reassured to hear that Der Spiegel’s journalist, Claas Relotius, had met some of the people that could represent the true complexities of Fergus Falls — people that love a good intellectual debate about both local and national issues, people that own small businesses, who grew up here but also had global experience and perspectives, and people who collaborate consistently across political lines because the simple reality of living in a small town is that everyone at some point has to work together if they want anything to function properly.

Knowing that Relotius’ purpose was likely to focus on a few of our many conservative voters, I still had an ounce of faith in journalism. Maybe, just maybe, since he was a professional, award winning, international journalist and was spending not one day here but several weeks, he would craft an interesting, nuanced story about how we all somehow manage to coexist with each other in Trump’s America without burning each other’s houses down.

Well, that isn’t how the article (trigger warning: religious image ahead) turned out, complete with it’s headline: “Where they pray for Trump on Sundays.”

I confess: The first time I read that, my brain turned it into “Where they pray TO Trump on Sundays.”

Actually, all kinds of liturgical religious organizations — the Episcopal Church, even — have moments in their worship services in which the people pray for their nation and its leaders. But you can kind of tell that journalist Claas Relotius was zooming way past ordinary liturgical prayers, in his news feature.

Anyway, you can’t read the original Der Spiegel piece because, when you click on that URL, you now hit the following text (care of a Google translation)

Note: At this point was the text "In a small town" by Claas Relotius on the US town of Fergus Falls. The text has turned out to be a fake. The SPIEGEL has decided after detailed examination and at the request of misrepresented and misquoted protagonists to block the article. Read more about the backgrounds HERE.

The Medium article consisted of — well, let’s let Anderson and Krohn set the stage:

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.

We hope that our version of this story makes you think twice the next time you read an article claiming some kind of intellectual authority over rural identity. …

This train wreck has draw a blizzard of online commentary. I have not, in all those URLs, been able to find a copy of the original “story” by Relotius. Has anyone seen that? Other than Trump worship, what role did religious life play in that nightmare vision of small-town America?

Just asking.

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