The Spiegel Scandal and the Seduction of Storytelling

“Everyone who writes knows the seduction of the narrative.” 
— Bernhard Pörksen in Die Zeit

The German journalism world is grappling with the implications of a shocking scandal at Der Spiegel: An award-winning, 33-year-old reporter — no, a fabulist and a fraud — named Claas Relotius made up article after article with stunning and audacious contempt for truth, as this fact-checking of his account of the rural American psyche makes clear.

German journalists are questioning Der Spiegel’s process and Relotius’ own psyche (he told his editors that he was motivated by a fear of failure) — as occurred in comparable American scandals of Jayson Blair at The New York Times and Janet Cooke at The Washington Post. But the Germans are digging deeper into the essence of journalism, questioning the perils of the seduction of the narrative form; the misplaced rewards inherent in professional awards; the risk to credibility for the institution in the time of “f*ke news;” the need for investigative self-examination in media; and more.

As best as ubiquitous paywalls and my very, very bad (sehr, sehr schlecht) German will allow [and I do hope my German friends will correct me where I’m wrong], I want to look at what the German journalists are talking about to see what lessons there are for journalists everywhere.

The perils of the story and storyteller

“A beautiful lie.” That is the headline on the essay in Zeit Online quoted above, in which Pörksen, a professor of media studies, discusses the form of the story: “What shows up here is called the narrative distortion, story bias. You have the story in your head, you know what sound readers or colleagues want to hear. And you deliver what works.” And it worked. Relotius was so well-known for his style that his magazine had a label for it: “the Relotius sound.”

In journalism, the story too often becomes a self-fulfilling creation. Early in my career at the Chicago Tribune, I watched a managing editor write a headline — complete with victim and drama — and then direct his investigative task force to go get that story. I worry when I sit in journalism classes and hear talk of getting quotes to fill in “my story,” with the emphasis on the reporter’s control of the narrative. I dislike that our process too often starts — in newsroom and classroom — with pitching a story people will want to read.

This has long been my heresy. Back in 2011, I was questioning the article as the atomic unit of journalism in a time when we were playing instead with flows and streams: journalism as process; the article deconstructed. That roiled storytellers.

The Spiegel affair cuts deeper into our presumptions and makes us ask whether our compulsion to make news compelling (yes, entertaining) leads us astray. In various of the German reactions I read, some wondered whether we should in essence make news duller: just the facts, mein Herr. “At last, don’t we need a new objectivity, a return to stricter form,” Pörksen asks, “or instead an absolute and open declaration of subjectivity, which identifies specific description as purely personal perception?” Do we need to admit that journalism is not a mirror to the world (“Spiegel” means mirror) — adhering to the Prime Directive of noninterference — but instead by its work is an actor in the world? (Internet platforms are grappling with exactly this conundrum as they cope with compensating for manipulation while grasping for neutrality.)

The real problem, of course, is that we have let our means of production determine our mission rather than the other way around (something I’ve heard Jay Rosen reflect upon often). I hear journalists say their primary role is as storytellers. No. I hear them say their task is to fill a product — a newspaper or magazine or show. No. Our job is to inform the public conversation. And now that we can hear people talking and join in with them, I’ve updated my definition of journalism to this: to convene communities into civil, informed, and productive conversation. This means our first job is not to write but to listen to that conversation so we can find what it needs to function. Then we report. Then we write — or convene or teach or use other forms now available to us. First listener, not storyteller. This is the thinking behind the new degree in Social Journalism we started at the Newmark J-School.

These lessons are not easily taught, for the addiction to storytelling as art — vs. journalism as service — is fierce. Journalist and media critic Stefan Niggemeier illustrates this challenge neatly in his critique of Spiegel editor-in-chief Ulrich Fichtner’s mea culpa for the fall of Relotius. “The harm begins in the first sentence,” Niggemeier says, then quoting Fichtner’s lede: “Just before the end of his career, splendor and misery came together in the life of Claas Relotius.” Thus Fichtner makes the story of the storymaker into a lovely story itself; he can’t help himself. His prose gets yet purpler when he writes of Relotius’ subjects, his characters: “…they are not human beings of flesh and blood, they live only on paper, and their creator is called Claas Relotius. Sometimes he lets them sing, sometimes cry, sometimes pray.”

Oh, according to everyone writing about him, Relotius could write. Says Annette Ramelsberger in the Süddeutsche Zeitung: “He wrote stories that were larger than life, bigger and more beautiful than life, with perfect protagonists, with dramaturgy a director could not have made better. His writing had the pull of a novel. That’s exactly what they were: stories from a storyteller posing as a journalist.”

Niggemeier quotes Fichtner’s explanation of the cause: “Anyone who has such material as a reporter, anyone who has a talent for drama, can spin gold out of it like in a fairy tale. Relotius has the talent. He invents the material.” So Niggemeier says Fichtner sees the problem as the material — the falsified facts — rather than the form, the storytelling, “the spinning and exaggeration of this craft by journalists and their prizes.”

The perils of prizes and self-congratulation

Relotius has already returned his four awards from the German Reporter Forum and some are questioning the value of such awards. That is another long-held heresy of mine: that our Pulitzers are bad for American journalism as they motivate us to impress each other, more than to serve the public. Of course, that’s not always the case, just too often it is.

“What happens when an industry is characterized by its vanity?” asks a headline in the trade publication Meedia, admitting it freaks out at the profession’s “rampant prize-giving fever.” Meedia says a portal for journalism prizes — its existence says much — counts more than 700 trophies awaiting winner.

The larger problem here is that our measurements of success are royally fucked up. On the business side, we value volume for volume’s sake — circulation, audience, pageviews, clicks, CPM — which, as I like to say, inevitably leads to cats and Kardashians and ultimately to clickbait made flesh, Donald Trump. On the editorial side, we value attention to us — most read, most clicked, most emailed, time spent. All of these metrics are mediacentric, egocentric. Our measures of success should instead be set by the public against its needs and goals. If anyone’s going to give journalism prizes, let it be the communities we serve.

As for the artful, rich, perfect story that is made to win awards: Leave it behind. Says Holger Stark in Die Zeit: “The Relotius affair is not the end of reportage. But the artform of flawless, over-perfumed reportage, which deceives readers and pretends it can tell the fate of the world in one person with the figure of the omniscient-authoritative narrator, which pops and smokes and sparks — that cinematic artform must now, at last come to an end…”

A failure of fact-checking

Der Spiegel’s fact-checking process is renowned — like The New Yorker’s still or like Time Inc.’s back in the day — so how could it fail? In this time of dis- and misinformation, fact-checkers are our last, best defenders of the truth.

Monika Bauerlein, a German journalist and now CEO of Mother Jones, who in her youth was inspired by Der Spiegel’s investigative reporting (“I do what I do today because of them”), laments that Spiegel’s 60 fact-checkers simply did not do as good a job as Mother Jones’, which number only a fifth as many. Bauerlein says it so happens that a story that helped alert Spiegel to Relotius’ fraud was one of MoJo’s own.

I point you again to the wonderful job of fact-checking of Relotius’ “report” from Fergus Falls, Minnesota, by two people who live there. Any amount of real fact-checking in Der Spiegel would have revealed the fraud. So why didn’t it work? Perhaps because…

Indeed. In another piece, Niggemeier says Der Spiegel’s fabled Dok — documentation (research or fact-checking) department — too often relied on the credibility of the reporter. He says these systems are built to pick up the error of the busy reporter who’s sloppy or hurried or merely human, not the work of a fraud. This is an indicator of a closed system that verifies trust by trusting itself.

As an aside, I have been part of a process by an organization outside the U.S. that is trying to set standards for trust in journalism and I’ve been dispirited that in this effort, there is no opening to listen to the public and its concerns (‘Why don’t you trust us?”), to test its standards with the public (“Would this help you trust us?”), and even to enshrine in those standards the need to hear the public (“We begin by listening to you”). So an untrusted institution thinks it builds trust by systematizing the processes that made it untrusted in the first place? Garg!

To be clear: Facts are the essence of journalism. Fact-checking is vital. I’ve been arguing that in J-schools, we need to do more to teach as a skill verification of both facts and of what people are saying in social media. But in the end, we must remember that facts themselves are a system that can be manipulated. See Kellyanne Conway’s inadvertent epiphany about alternative facts. Then see danah boyd’s brilliant SXSW EDU talk about news literacy and the real problem: warring epistemologies.

Yes, of course, we need fact-checking. But in this age, facts are insufficient. We need education. We need a new Enlightenment. That requires a wiser journalism.

Fake news, fake reporter

What hurts so much about this case is, of course, its moment in time. Just as journalism is being attacked in the United States from the top of government as “fake news” and the “enemy of the people” and as it is being attacked in Germany as die Lügenpresse (a revived Nazi slur meaning the lying press), here comes a scandal brimming with journalistic lies.

Not surprisingly, the conservative boulevard (that is, tabloid in spirit if not in size) newspaper Bild, reveled in poking at the liberal Der Spiegel, remolding Trump’s phrase to call Relotius, in English, the “fake reporter.” Bild’s so-called columnist (his columns are barely longer than tweets) Franz Josef Wagner accused Spiegel “of printing lies for years.” And Trump’s own ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, jumped at the opportunity to slam journalists anywhere, having the temerity to demand an investigation into Der Spiegel for anti-American bias. The magazine apologized for the lies, not any bias. As Niggemeier points out, Spiegel is apologizing to everyone now. The magazine apologized to readers, fellow journalists, prize juries, journalism schools, business partners, customers, and the family of its founder, Rudolf Augstein. “Seriously?” Niggemeier exclaims. “To the Augstein family? Should you then not seek forgiveness from Gutenberg’s descendants — after all, Relotius’ articles have been printed on paper!”

Such is the weakened, defensive state of Der Spiegel and journalism now.

Investigate thyself

Had it not been for the diligence of one of Relotius’ Spiegel colleagues, Juan Moreno, the fraudster might still be quoting unicorns. Working alongside Relotius on a story, Moreno’s spidey sense prickled and he tried to alert his editors. They all but threatened Moreno with firing if his allegations did not pan out. Dogged, as a reporter should be, Moreno took a trip to the U.S. and, without the company’s approval, found some of Relotius’ sources, who all said they’d never been interviewed by him. After risking his own job, Moreno is now a hero.

In Die Zeit, Prof. Pörksen says Moreno engaged in something too rare in Germany (and I’d say anywhere): investigative media reporting. If the Spiegel affair leads to the birth of such an undertaking, Pörksen says, then perhaps it would not have been suffered in vain. Perhaps. I wrote just yesterday that journalists should be demanding of themselves what they are demanding of Facebook and Silicon Valley: transparency, ethical self-examination, criticism of the moral hazards of our business models and metrics, and honesty about our loss in trust.

Out of obvious necessity, Germany has made a skill out of blunt self-examination. As they have done with their history, I hope they do with their journalism and I hope we can learn from them. In the age of America’s Trump, the United Kingdom’s Brexit, Germany’s AfD, Russia’s Putin, France’s gilets jaunes, Brazil’s Bolsonaro, the Philippines’ Duterte, Turkey’s Erdoğan, Hungry’s Orbán, Venezuela’s Maduro, Saudi Arabia’s MBS, China’s Xi — and on and on — we can agree that we need journalism more than ever and journalism needs to be tougher on itself and more accountable to its public than ever.

Says Ramelsberger in the Süddeutsche: “We can learn from all this. First of all: Journalists are not artists, they are mostly ordinary craftsmen. Second, they must serve the truth and not their own glory. Third, they have a task. They are the … so-called garbage collectors of the fact world who document, question, and doubt. From this come no articles that glitter on all sides like disco balls. But the reputation of journalism and the mission it has in society helps the solid story more than stories that are too good to be true.”

Oh, I hear some saying, but because of the internet, we have fewer resources and so doing good work becomes only harder; we can’t afford fact-checking and investigation and wisdom. No. This is why we must prioritize our work with our mission. Give up the fluffiest of our fluff. Stop copying each other just to churn out our own page views. End our quest for the perfect compelling, attention-grabbing, prize-winning narrative. Put our resources behind the job that matters: doing our part to assure a civil, informed, and productive public conversation.