Der Spiegel journalist messed with the wrong small town
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.
Suddenly we do matter, but only because everyone wants to be the hero pundit that cracks the code of the current rural psyche. There are only two things those writers seem to have concluded or are able to pitch to their editors — we are either backwards, living in the past and have our heads up our asses, or we’re like dumb, endearing animals that just need a little attention in order to keep us from eating the rest of the world alive.
With that in mind, I was slightly reassured to hear that Der Spiegel’s journalist, Claas Relotius, had met some of the people that could represent the true complexities of Fergus Falls — people that love a good intellectual debate about both local and national issues, people that own small businesses, who grew up here but also had global experience and perspectives, and people who collaborate consistently across political lines because the simple reality of living in a small town is that everyone at some point has to work together if they want anything to function properly.
Knowing that Relotius’ purpose was likely to focus on a few of our many conservative voters, I still had an ounce of faith in journalism. Maybe, just maybe, since he was a professional, award winning, international journalist and was spending not one day here but several weeks, he would craft an interesting, nuanced story about how we all somehow manage to coexist with each other in Trump’s America without burning each other’s houses down.
But I also had a distinct gut feeling that his portrayal of this town could go very, very wrong.
What happened is beyond what I could have ever imagined: An article titled “Where they pray for Trump on Sundays,” and endless pages of an insulting, if not hilarious, excuse for journalism.
Not only did Relotius’ “exposé” on Fergus Falls make unrecognizable movie-like characters out of the people in my town that I interact with on a daily basis, but its very basic lack of truth and its bizarrely bleak portrayal of the place I love left a very sick, unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach.
There’s really nothing like this feeling — knowing that people in another country have read about the place I call home and are shaking their heads over their coffee in disgust, sharing the article on Facebook and Twitter, and making comments on the online article like “creepy,” and “these are the people who don’t believe electricity exists.”
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.
There are so many lies here, that my friend Jake and I had to narrow them down to top 11 most absurd lies (we couldn’t do just 10) for the purpose of this article. We’ve been working on it since the article came out in spring of 2017, but had to set it aside to attend to our lives (raising a family, managing a nonprofit organization, etc.) before coming back to it this fall, and finally wrapped things up a few weeks ago, just in time to hear today that Relotius was fired when he was exposed for fabricating many of his articles.
We hope that our version of this story makes you think twice the next time you read an article claiming some kind of intellectual authority over rural identity, and that you’ll come and see for yourself what Fergus Falls is all about (we don’t mind a little tourism boost every now and then — although we’re doing pretty well attracting artists from all around the nation, among other things).
1. The Sleeping Dragon
“After three and a half hours, the bus bends from the highway to a narrow, sloping street, rolling towards a dark forest that looks like dragons live in it. At the entrance, just before the station, there is a sign with the American stars and stripes banner, which reads: “Welcome to Fergus Falls, home of damn good folks.”
Fergus Falls is located on the prairie — which means our landscape mostly consists of tall grass and lakes. While we have trees, we do not have any distinct forests in our city limits, and definitely not in the route that the bus Relotius would have taken from the Twin Cities. And sadly, our welcome sign is quite mundane in its greeting.
2. The gun-toting, virgin City Administrator
“Andrew Bremseth would like to marry soon, he says, but he was never together with a woman. He has also never seen the ocean.”
Relotius chose to put the spotlight on Fergus Falls city administrator, Andrew Bremseth, as the main character in his article. We have spoken to Bremseth at length regarding the parts of the story that feature him, and Relotius got three facts right:
- Bremseth’s age (27)
- That he grew up in Fergus Falls
- That he went to university in South Dakota
Everything else, from the claim that Bremseth carries a Beretta 9mm on his person while at work (“I would never ever wear a gun to work, and I don’t even own a Beretta.”), his disdain for a potential female president, his comment that Trump would “kick ass” (“Never said that”), and even his college-era preference for 18th century French philosophers (“Never read them”) and the New England Patriots (“I’m not a fan of them at all”), is complete fiction. Says Bremseth, “Anyone who knows anything about me, this [portrayal] is the furthest from what I stand for.”
Perhaps the oddest fiction in a list of many is Relotius’ depiction of Bremseth as someone who “would like to marry soon…but he has not yet been in a serious relationship with a woman. He has also never been to the ocean.”
We can attest that Bremseth has indeed been to the ocean, by his account, “many times” and is currently happily involved in a multi-year, cohabitational relationship with a woman named Amber. In fact, here’s a picture of the two of them in front of, all things, an ocean.
Relotius also decided he could get away with telling his readers that Bremseth is the only Fergus Falls resident that subscribes to national publications, painting the community as the perfect villain around which to frame the rest of his horror story about rural America.
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.”
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. To be sure, we even reached out to Isaac Wunderlich, the manager of Westridge Theatre.
4. Neil, the coal plant employee that doesn’t exist
“There is nothing on the cap of Neil Becker. Becker, a man with strong shoulders, blond hair and big, clear eyes, asks, “Have you lost your mind?” Neil Becker is 57 years old, married, a man with a deep voice and a face in which seldom find any questions. He is not a farmer, he works next door in the coal-fired power plant, his hands are always black.”
The man Relotius describes has an accompanying photo in the Der Spiegel article, and we all know that guy. It’s the one and only Doug Becker, who works for UPS and ran the Fergus Falls Fitness Center for years, which is possibly the only place in Minnesota where you could listen to a vintage record collection while lifting weights. While we have not yet been able to sit down with Doug to discuss his conversations with Relotius, we know enough about him (it’s a small town after all) to make his depiction seem very suspect.
5. The mixed-up case of Israel and Maria
“Maria Rodriguez, a mother and local restaurant owner from Mexico, who came to the USA years ago, also saw Trump as a savior.”
One of the most exploitative aspects of Relotius’ story was his depiction of the employees at Don Pablo’s, a much-beloved Mexican restaurant in the heart of downtown. Relotius weaves together the story of Maria, restaurateur turned Trump supporter whose treatment for kidney disease becomes increasingly expensive under Obamacare, and that of her 15-year old son Israel, who faces prejudice at the hands of his Fergus Falls classmates. It’s riveting stuff, but, as is par for the course, an utter lie.
This was confirmed through a lengthy conversation we had with Maria’s son, Pablo Rodriguez, dubbed Israel, in Relotius’ story. “None of that story is true,” said Rodriguez. In fact, he had never talked to Relotius at all. His only interaction with the journalist was when he was stopped and asked to pose for a picture outside of the restaurant, which later appeared in the article.
In Relotius’ telling, “Israel” was a 15-year-old high school student, when in reality Pablo was in his second year of college. There is an Israel in the Don Pablo’s universe, a waiter in his late 20’s, who likely served Relotius a meal and lended his name to this fictional character, but little else.
Maria Rodriguez, as pictured in the story, is indeed Maria Rodriguez in real life, but that is where the truth ends. She does not own the restaurant (she is a waitress there; her sister-in-law Teresa is the owner), has never suffered from kidney disease, and, most tellingly, never even sat for an interview with Relotius. Says Rodriguez, “He just wanted to take a picture of me. He never talked to me about anything.”
6. The view from the Viking Cafe
“You can see the power plant where he works when you look out the window of the Diner, six tall, gray towers, from which rise white steam clouds.”
The Viking Cafe is Fergus Falls’ most treasured downtown establishment — over 60 years old. One of the reasons we Minnesotans all like it so much is that it has a cozy, underground feeling. Why? Because there are literally NO WINDOWS in the interior of this restaurant. Sure, you can see a little bit out the small front windows, but nothing beyond the shops across the street. The power plant Relotius refers to is almost 2 miles away on the northeast edge of town, blocked from view by a neighborhood on a large hill, and sports a single smokestack. Relotius’ imaginings are dramatic for the movie version of Trump’s America someday, but is it accurate and true? Not in the least.
7. Library lies
“In the library, which used to be a kindergarten, pensioners meet for knitting. A couple of buildings away, in the town hall, City Administrator Andrew Bremseth, who believes in breaking away, is leading a seminar called ‘iPad for Beginners,’ four locals are participating. He also organizes a TV series quiz night once a month, his favorite series is called ‘Game of Thrones.’
One of our writers, Jake, is married to the Fergus Falls Public Library’s youth librarian, so we feel this is a great place to quote him. “No,” he says, “the building was built in 1986 and has only functioned as a library.”
There has never been an iPad for Beginners class at City Hall. Classes like that are the library’s domain and taught by one of the librarians there. And as to Bremseth’s “Game of Thrones” quiz night? As with everything else related to our city administrator, a complete lie. Says a laughing Bremseth, “I don’t have cable, I’ve never seen Game of Thrones, and I don’t even know what it’s about.” Never seen Game of Thrones? In this case, truth is (just about) stranger than fiction.
8. High School security
“Anyone who enters it must pass through a security line, through three armored glass doors, and a weapon scanner.”
Although we haven’t tested the strength of the doors fronting our high school, we are quite sure that “armored” is an exaggeration, and there are two, not three, sets of doors; their real purpose is to keep the cold January air out of the school more than automatic weapons. That is not to say our grounds are not secure — all doors are locked during the school day and visitors must pass through the school office to receive a visitor’s pass before entering. While this picture of a hardened school is undoubtedly true elsewhere in the U.S., it’s simply not the case in Fergus Falls.
9. Secret Super Bowl viewing at the Brewery?
“The pub around him is crowded with men, hanging from the ceiling garlands, the Super Bowl is on TV, and Andrew Bremseth is sitting on a stool, in front of him is a dark beer, he likes it warm in the winter.”
The Super Bowl was on Sunday, February 5th. Union Pizza wasn’t open on Sundays at that time. Therefore, Bremseth and Relotius definitely couldn’t have watched the Super Bowl there and talked politics. To confirm this, we talked briefly to our Mayor, the owner of Union Pizza, just to make sure he didn’t have some kind of private Super Bowl party. “Was the restaurant open for the Super Bowl? Did you have it open just for friends and family?” His response to both queries: “No…?”
Bremseth confirmed this, saying, “I didn’t watch the Super Bowl at Union Pizza and I certainly wouldn’t have watched it with this guy. And I like my beer light and cold.”
10. The awesome “Western Evening”… that no one was invited to.
“That evening, Bremseth says the people of Fergus Falls love are big, extravagant festivals. It was last summer, he says, they were celebrating a Western evening here in this bar. They poured sand and straw on the porch, grilled marinated beef halves, and played a country band. All women, including Maria Rodriguez, danced in old-fashioned clothes, all the men, among them Neil Becker and his regular friends, wore hats or cowboy boots.”
We find this hilarious, if not a little inspiring for a future event idea, especially since all of the characters Relotius portrayed in this article just happened to show up at this “Western evening” in Fergus Falls. The nice thing about a small town is that none of us would have missed this, especially if our city administrator, the non-owner of our Mexican restaurant, and our non-existent power plant worker Neil knew about it and attended. Again, we confirmed with Mayor Schierer, just in case we were somehow too busy to miss this, or just not invited. “No western-themed parties here,” he said.
11. The High School New York Trip
“The bus reaches New York at midnight, the towers of Manhattan light up. The students move into a hostel on the outskirts of the city, only the next morning take the subway to Times Square. None of them ever went underground, and their parents have never been to New York. On their first day, they head through the streets, head hanging back to their necks. They spit from the Rockefeller Center and ride a boat across the Hudson River. They do not go to Liberty Island, the Statue of Liberty, but they visit the Trump Tower.”
We reached out to several sources on this one, and no one recalls a busload of high school students traveling to New York. We asked two high school students, an assistant principal, and a teacher who is tuned in to all the happenings at the school, and all cited an every-other-year band trip that goes to New York, but 2017 was an off year. We searched our local newspaper archives for mention of a trip by any of our 29 churches or a service clubs but came up short. We couldn’t find our fictional friend “Israel,” who went on the trip and we even reached out to our network of Facebook contacts to see if anyone recalled such a trip happening, but no one had. As with many other vignettes painted by Relotius, this one, too, appears to be complete fiction.
So, what did Relotius miss?
Being an outspoken advocate of rural issues and Fergus Falls, I tried to say “hi” to Relotius at a public meeting, only to be glanced at briefly and ignored because he was very preoccupied with taking a picture of an American flag at our city hall. Or maybe he just pretended not to hear me because I didn’t fit into his story.
Not only did he simply indulge in fabricating dramatic scenes and stories about Fergus Falls, but Relotius somehow spent three weeks here and managed to miss out on experiencing the real community and its many complex perspectives, which might have actually offered a helpful analyses about economic transition, politics and identity in rural America.
As a resident that moved here 7 years ago, single, at age 29 from Portland, Oregon, with deep family roots in the area, I would have happily taken him to my favorite coffee shop, where they serve locally crafted Stumbeanos coffee and a cappuccino as good as any coastal city. Or to my office at Springboard for the Arts, where we provide programs that help artists in the region make a living, and directly address the future of rural communities and culture through events like the Rural Arts and Culture Summit, and our Hinge Artist Residency at Fergus Falls’ former state mental institution. And I would have willingly poured my heart out to him about the night I watched the elections at Union Pizza, where I saw my colleagues and friends slouched over in tears of dread and sadness when we realized that Trump would be our next president.
And maybe if he gained my trust I would share with him what I had learned since starting “Open Hearts,” an online forum that was quickly joined by over 200 local residents and provides a supportive space to talk and organize around social justice and equity issues in Fergus Falls.
Yes, we have problems with racism here that he could have used real accounts of (the sign he mentions, “Mexicans Keep Out,” as far as we’ve asked other members of the community, was not seen by anyone else, and would have certainly generated a significant community discussion), but I would also have made sure he got the story of Fergus Falls residents who proudly attended the women’s marches in St. Paul or D.C., and displayed Black Lives Matters signs in our yards or buttons on our jackets, people who mentor immigrants and refugees in the region, people who grow their own food and bike everywhere in order to protect the environment and keep their families healthy, people who have chosen the simplicity rural life as a protest against the often extravagant necessities of city living.
This is just a hunch, but it seems to me that Relotius’ overseas readers might appreciate knowing that small American towns are more complex than they imagine — that die-hard liberals like me can still magically live alongside conservative Republicans — that sometimes we even find some common ground and share a meal together, and take the time to try to understand each other’s viewpoints. You see, we’re definitely not perfect here in Fergus Falls, and many of us feel a lot of responsibility right now, considering that our friends, family and neighbors voted against their own interests in 2016. But we also know how it feels to be ignored in policy and media for decades only to be lectured by ignorant articles such as this after so much silence about our challenges.
So, now I’m glad that I didn’t waste my time talking to Relotius. I’m grateful not to have had my name permanently embedded into his article. But my friends and neighbors in the article are not so lucky and they deserve to reclaim their stories, as well as to hear apologies from Der Spiegel and Relotius.
Unfortunately now, even if it is in German, there is false historical documentation of our community that is not only completely wrong, but that our faces, our landscapes and our community’s name were used for, in service of perpetuating an ugly and exaggerated stereotype during a time when we, in both urban and rural places, need to find ways to understand each other more than to be divided.
So it would be remiss of us to not to have a little hope that a few months of writing out here on the prairie might lead to others to seriously question Relotius and others writers’ credibility and intentions in telling the rural story. Or at least to inspire a better publication out there to do better work, to lift up the stories that are coming directly from rural people themselves, and help us share the real story of who we are and what our future might hold.
Michele and Jake live in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, where they collaborate on weird community art projects, sing karaoke in friends’ living rooms and gossip about local politics. You can contact them on twitter at @micheleeamn and @jakekrohn.