Germany’s most prestigious news magazine, Der Spiegel, lived every media’s worst nightmare last month: the discovery that its star reporter, Claas Relotius, is a serial fabulist who had manufactured stories, characters, and quotes—many about America and Americans—out of whole cloth for years.
The announcement was especially surprising because Der Spiegel enjoys a reputation for meticulousness. Its fact-checking department, the largest of its kind in Europe, is the pride of the magazine.
Der Spiegel has long been the magazine of choice for highbrow, liberal Germans who stand guard over polite society. Their initial reaction, parroting Der Spiegel’s initial announcement, has been to cast the magazine as a victim before applauding it for transparency in publicizing the deception.
After all, as Der Spiegel’s incoming editor-in-chief, Steffen Klusmann, put it in a brief interview, “It’s most likely that no one could have discovered this.” So how did Relotius deceive an army of professional journalists for years and trigger the biggest journalism scandal in decades? Through the support of an unlikely yet powerful accomplice—the American elite.
Relotius’ style was to unmask middle America with ugly distortions. His dispatch from the Trump stronghold of Fergus Falls, Minnesota, begins with a sign at the town’s entrance that reads, “Mexicans Keep Out,” while his portrayal of a border militia in Arizona ends with the bloodthirsty protagonist firing wildly into the night. In Missouri, he accompanied a pious woman on her mission to witness executions across America.
These inventions included glaring errors that should have been caught. But they passed muster at headquarters in Hamburg because in a deeper sense they were all true: guns, racism, fundamentalism—isn’t that what our American elites tell us are the defining qualities of their countrymen?
For decades, German liberals have stood in awe of America’s dominant institutions. As a struggle between liberal globalists and conservative nationalists has emerged over the future of the West, that admiration has grown into solidarity.
At the same time, the internet has taken a hatchet to local media across the United States, increasing Europe’s reliance on coastal outlets to understand rural America. If Davos is “where billionaires tell millionaires how the middle class feels,” as JP Morgan boss Jamie Dimon memorably described it, then Germany’s foreign coverage is where The New Yorker tells Der Spiegel how to understand the people of Mississippi.
Alas, the state of the American media is bleak. Increasingly, it has taken sides in the debate between constitutionalists and progressives, caricaturing the former while aping the latter.
When middle America demands solutions to the declining life expectancy of working-class men, it is told that only Black Lives Matter. When it reacts to lawlessness by supporting immigration controls, it is tarred as racist.
Unfortunately, liberal Europe has picked up the cue. One month after Donald Trump’s inauguration, Der Spiegel’s cover depicted the president, bloody knife in hand, holding the decapitated, gory head of Lady Liberty. For good measure, the magazine followed up last year with a cover entitled, “America’s obituary.”
A scandal on the scale of Der Spiegel’s should produce introspection on the state of journalism in the West. The initial signs have not been encouraging, however. The New York Times reacted with warnings about the European far-right, posting the headline: “After German Journalism Scandal, Critics are ‘Popping the Corks.’” When U.S. ambassador Ric Grenell said publicly what many have whispered privately—that Der Spiegel has long embraced an overtly critical narrative of America—he was met with a wave of criticism directed at Trump.
Engraved on a wall in the main atrium of Der Spiegel’s headquarters in Hamburg is its founding motto, “Sagen, was ist,” or “Tell it like it is.” The magazine chose the saying for its first post-scandal cover, which is devoted to the affair.
First and foremost, the case of Relotius is an opportunity for Der Spiegel to reassess its caricatures of America, to cast away the ideological blinders that produced one stereotype of the country after another. For that to succeed, however, its cousins across the Atlantic will have to do better.
The scandal at Der Spiegel is a reminder of the responsibility American elites hold to paint a nuanced and detailed portrait of America. Relotius may have been the poster boy for vanity, a prevaricator of the highest order. Unfortunately, he got most of his material from an unlikely source: us.