Plausible Lies

The case of Claas Relotius, Der Spiegel and the town of Fergus Falls, Minnesota has become notorious. Der Spiegel, Europe’s most widely-read news source, fired Relotius, one of Germany’s most honored journalists, when it came to light that he had made up facts in a number of articles he wrote for the magazine. The Fergus Falls fiction was exposed by two residents of that town, who wrote an article in Medium listing the “top 11 most absurd lies” in Relotius’s piece, which was titled “Where They Pray For Trump on Sundays” and was intended to enlighten Europeans about America’s bizarre Trump voters.

The Medium piece is well worth reading in its entirety. Here are a few highlights.

You enter Fergus Falls through “a dark forest that looks like dragons live in it”? Nope.

The city administrator straps on a Beretta to go to work? Nope.

The same city administrator has never been in a relationship with a woman and has never seen the ocean? Nope. Amusingly, the Fergus Falls residents included in their Medium piece this photo of the city administrator with his live-in girlfriend. At the ocean.

American Sniper is still playing at the local cinema? Nope.

To enter Fergus Falls High School, one “must pass through a security line, through three armored glass doors, and a weapon scanner”? Nope.

Someone put up a sign saying “Mexicans Keep Out”? Nope.

It goes on and on. We aren’t talking about spin or hyperbole here. The reporter made most of his article up out of whole cloth to suit his own prejudices, and those of his readers. The Wall Street Journal has taken note:

Europe faces its largest journalistic scandal in years after Der Spiegel, the continent’s biggest-selling news magazine, said one of its star reporters fabricated facts in his articles for years.

The magazine’s disclosure, which came after a colleague raised concerns about a recent piece on supporters of President Trump in rural America, was made as Europe’s established media faces attacks by populist forces at home and abroad.
In seven years writing for Der Spiegel, Mr. Relotius became one of Germany’s most highly regarded journalists, accumulating 10 coveted awards.

But in a separate video interview on the magazine’s website, a colleague said he raised an alarm in November about some facts in an article he and Mr. Relotius co-authored about a pro-Trump militia, which the article described as hunting down immigrants along Arizona’s border with Mexico.

Officials at Der Spiegel are wringing their hands over how this could happen at a magazine once famed for its scrupulous fact-checking.

Stefan Niggemeier, an independent media blogger in Berlin and a former Spiegel journalist, said some of the articles at issue appeared to confirm certain German stereotypes about Trump voters, asking “was this possible because of an ideological bias?”

Do you think?

The affair cast doubt on the effectiveness of Der Spiegel’s renowned fact-checking department, once described as the largest in the world by the Columbia Journalism Review. The magazine, which said it employs around 70 fact-checkers, said its system had failed.
In response to questions from The Wall Street Journal, Ms. Anderson [one of the authors of the Medium piece] wrote in an email that none of the people she spoke with in Fergus Falls referenced in the Der Spiegel article were approached for fact-checking by the magazine.

In an article Wednesday, Der Spiegel wrote that Mr. Relotius “distorts reality” in the article about Fergus Falls. A spokesman for the magazine said that Der Spiegel’s fact-checking process “does not include contacting any subjects of articles,” adding that the department reviews each story sentence by sentence for accuracy and plausibility, followed by a review between the department and the story’s author.

I think that last observation comes close to the heart of the matter. Stories are reviewed “sentence by sentence for accuracy and plausibility.” What is going on here is not fact-checking, but plausibility-checking. Is it surprising that the editors at Der Spiegel found Relotius’s absurd smears against the people of Fergus Falls to be plausible? No. Bias reinforced bias, bigotry confirmed bigotry.

This phenomenon is not restricted to the European press. Here in the U.S., we have seen many instances where news outlets like CNN have reported “facts” that were entirely fabricated. Those “facts” likewise passed the test of plausibility–that is, they tended to make Donald Trump and his supporters look bad. This is, I think, one of the key mechanisms through which leftist bias is institutionalized, and the press repeatedly embarrasses itself by printing falsehoods.

The sobering question is, of all the falsehoods printed in the “mainstream” press, what percentage do you think are ever publicly exposed?

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