Small-town Minnesotans in the mist:
In February 2017, my husband and I attended a concert at our local theater, and were sipping some wine in the lobby before the show started. Several people came up to us at separate times excitedly, and asked, “did you meet the German guy yet?!”
I hadn’t, but my spider senses perked up when I heard that he worked for Der Spiegel, a magazine based in Hamburg, and that he was writing about the state of rural America in the wake of Trump’s presidency.
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.
The German guy is Claas Relotius, who appears to be a Teutonic Stephen Glass. He tells tales and confirms biases for a living by pretending to be a reporter. And he came to Fergus Falls last year to let his worldwide audience find out what they wanted to believe was true.
As it happens, he made up most of what he claims to have seen. The linked article from Medium is the work of a Fergus Falls resident named Michele Anderson, who wants the world to know Fergus Falls isn't what Relotius related:
Relotius has received accolades for his daring quest to live among us for several weeks. And yet, he reported on very little actual truth about Fergus Falls life. In 7,300 words he really only got our town’s population and average annual temperature correct, and a few other basic things, like the names of businesses and public figures, things that a child could figure out in a Google search. The rest is uninhibited fiction (even as sloppy as citing an incorrect figure of citywide 70.4% electoral support for Trump, when the actual number was 62.6%), which begs the question of why Der Spiegel even invested in Relotius’ three week trip to the U.S., whether they should demand their money back from him, and what kind of institutional breakdown led to the supposedly world-class Der Spiegel fact-checking team completely dropping the ball on this one.
Anderson then goes on to catalog the falsehoods Relotius offered his readers, including a few highly amusing ones:
3. The town obsessed with American Sniper
“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.”
True? Of course not:
There's more, a lot more, at the link. It's all familiar enough -- I remember when David Broder came to my home town back in the 1990s and told a bunch of lies about what he'd seen. As always, if a story seems too good to be true, it almost certainly is.