Shortly before Christmas, the German news magazine Der Spiegel, one of the country’s most prestigious publications, revealed what many thought unthinkable: that it has been deceived for years by one of its top reporters who turned out to have successfully blurred the frontier between journalistic accuracy and literature.
Over the past seven years, Der Spiegel published close to 60 articles by Claas Relotius, 33, before the latter finally admitted forging his own reportages, some of which have been awarded, including Germany’s Reporter of the Year prize in 2018 and CNN’s Journalist of the Year in 2014.
It is only after being confronted by facts his colleague Juan Moreno had been collecting that one of the biggest fraud cases in German-speaking journalism was brought into the light.
Relotius has now disappeared from the public sphere, communicating only via his lawyers, thus avoiding an intense debate that has been going on ever since in Germany, with one question pending: How could this happen, and to Der Spiegel of all news organisations.
Der Spiegel sells some 725,000 print copies a week and has an online readership of about 6.5 million. The Hamburg-based publication was founded in 1947 and is renowned for its in-depth investigating pieces. Journalists also know that it is one of the few news organisations that actually still send reporters around the globe to cover events extensively – and accurately.
The debate is all the more intense as Relotius focused his work on conflicts, wars and political events – and not the glamorous world of Hollywood. He wrote mostly reportages, a news format Der Spiegel until now boasted as its supreme discipline.
With his wrongdoing, the falsifier brought Der Spiegel into a deep existential crisis. The magazine is currently looking for a solution that would bring back the most valuable asset it so abruptly lost: credibility. It also had personal consequences: Co-editor-in-chief, Ullrich Fichtner, and editor Matthias Geyer, have both been suspended.
“As things stand today, we must assume by default that all the articles written by Relotius were fabrications, including the pieces he wrote for other publications. Even if parts of his stories are true, they are embellished with figments of his imagination. In that sense, it doesn’t really help much to know which individual sentences are true or not. Journalistically, these stories have no value,” wrote the new editor-in-chief, Steffen Klusmann.
“We have learned that Claas Relotius is an ingenious swindler and are learning more with each passing day about the depths to which he sank (…) As the editors of Der Spiegel, we have to admit that we have failed to a considerable extent. Relotius succeeded in circumventing and abrogating all the quality assurance mechanisms this company has in place,” he also said.
What about the pending question?
Anne Fromm, a media specialist at Berlin-based Tageszeitung, better known as TAZ, points out to the imbalance between journalistic accuracy and the aesthetic of a text, the latter, in her view, being too much favoured in the German journalistic world in a bid to win one of the prestigious journalistic prizes.
“One has to look at the criteria that apply today to journalistic excellency, and what is taught at journalism schools and the significance of journalist prizes. The website journalistenpreise.de lists around 500 prizes that are currently being awarded. Not all are equally viewed. But the number shows that today they represent a currency. And the editors – also the TAZ – like to cheer themselves,” she wrote.
“At journalism schools, students learn that their texts should generate “cinema in the head” for the reader, that a good text needs strong “protagonists” and a “conflict” that the “dramaturgy” of the text is important. One learns to call the texts not articles, but “stories”. Journalist students take “storytelling” seminars as if they were writing for Netflix,” she also said.
She has a point. In Germany, Der Spiegel is known for its appetite for literary reportage, often dubbed as “Der Spiegel style,” which can be described as being painfully descriptive, down to the tiniest details, with even some purple prose.
Indeed, when the whole scam was uncovered, the then Spiegel editor Ullrich Fichtner wrote a piece of some 6000 words, where he recreated the tense and emotional moments that led to the scandal. Fichtner is the one who brought Relotius to the Spiegel.
It starts with: “Shortly before the end of his journalistic career, misery and glamour crossed paths in the life of Claas Relotius.”
Commenting on Fichtner’s article, Giovanni di Lorenzo, the editor in chief of Die Zeit, another weekly and one of Der Spiegel’s competitors, said he found this mixture of cultural reportage and essay for this kind of explanation unconvincing. “Because beautiful writing, exciting writing, was also a part of what Relotius is accused of,” he said.
The blur between what is literature and what is journalism also led to a specific state of mind, namely the blindness towards award-winning, prestige-driven journalism. The German language has a name for that: Edelfedern, a word that can be translated as prestigious writer.
In his recount, Juan Moreno explained how the executive floor at first refused to see the facts. “He is such a fantastic, modest, great colleague,” was one of the answers he got. In fact, Moreno almost got kicked out of Der Spiegel for insisting on the truth.
Voices are now prompting to put an end to what Ulrich Werner Schulze, a former managing editor at Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) and Süddeutschezeitung (SZ), calls the arrogance of Der Spiegel.
“There are only two logical consequences of this recent media scandal,” he wrote. “Abolish the term ‘leading media’, ‘Edelfedern’ and the incestuous cycle of prize-winning journalism processes. And go back to the basics: humility, respect, research, news – and then, maybe, a comment. So far it’s been the other way around: opinion first. But most readers are able to form their own opinion; they do not need the prefabricated life pattern of the Edelfedern.”
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Views are the author’s