“It is an element of the fundamental nature of humankind to be shockingly generous with truth and probability as long as there is no obvious reason for doubt,” Ullrich Fichtner, the editor in chief of Der Spiegel wrote. He was trying to explain, at excruciating length, how Der Spiegel had allowed a reporter and editor named Claas Relotius to fill its pages with fake reporting for years, winning prizes and impressing his colleagues with vivid scenes, compelling quotes, and extraordinary access.
The stiffness of Fichtner’s prose can be blamed on the language barrier, but the thinking behind it was pure rigor mortis, a journalism professional in denial about having been in denial. Claas Relotius was a hilarious and awful fraud in the old, high style, preying the same way Stephen Glass did on his publication’s greedy delusions about how easy it is to do extraordinary journalism. One youngish reporter bounced around the world—Syria, Guantanamo, Mississippi—getting the story everywhere he went, from sources no one else had been able to find or win over. There was no way, Fichtner wrote, for Der Speigel’s “thorough fact-checking and vetting process” to have found the problems with Relotius’ “on-the-ground reporting.”
Meanwhile two citizens of Fergus Falls, Minnesota, working in their spare time, were telling the story of how they had gone ahead and debunked Relotius’ coverage of their town. Michele Anderson and Jake Krohn, writing on Medium, effectively debunked not only Relotius’ feature story about life in a Trump-crazed backwater hellscape, but Der Spiegel‘s own autopsy and excuses.
They started with the town’s welcome sign, which Relotius had described as “a sign with the American stars and stripes banner, which reads: ‘Welcome to Fergus Falls, home of damn good folks.'” The actual sign, in a helpfully supplied photo, simply featured a green shape of the state of Minnesota and the words “Welcome to Fergus Falls.” This does not seem like a difficult thing for a fact-checker to have asked someone about.
The whole thing was a showcase of Anderson and Krohn’s meticulous and occasionally hilarious reporting, or re-reporting. The most indelible part of their investigation was also the most comical of the details they ended up disproving:
“There is also a cinema outside of town, where fast food stores are lit up. In this cinema, a flat, rectangular building, there are two films on a Friday evening. The one, “La La Land”, running in empty rows, is a musical, a romance about artists in Los Angeles. The other, “American Sniper”, a war film by Clint Eastwood, is sold out. The film is actually already two years old, almost 40 million Americans have seen it, but it still runs in Fergus Falls.”
This anecdote that supported Relotius’ exaggerated story of an immigrant-fearing, gun obsessed small town one was the easiest to fact check and yet the strangest, most random lie for him to craft. American Sniper definitely has not played in Fergus Falls since its first and only run in 2015.
The image of people packing a movie theater to keep on watching a two-year-old movie was, even by the sometimes dubious standards of Trump-country expeditions, ridiculous. Its ridiculousness should have been obvious to the Spiegel fact-checking desk. But Anderson and Krohn—with the integrity of amateurs, beyond mere professionalism—didn’t trust to the obviousness of it, or to their own memories. Instead, they wrote to the manager of the movie theater to ask, and they published a screen shot of his reply:
American Sniper played at our theatre in Fergus Falls on January 16, 2015 thru February 19th. We did not play this film again after those dates. Our February line up for 2017 was Lego Batman, Fifty Shades Darker, La La Land, Split, and Dogs Purpose, Hidden Figures, and Rings. We have 5 screens at this location. What was the source for this that you have read?
There was plenty more, unpacking a mind-boggling series of the star journalist’s fabrications and falsehoods, but the citizen reporters had already nailed down the story. The decisive facts were there, and they’d been there all along, just waiting for someone to care about them enough to ask.