Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Journalistic fraud

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As a frequent* critic of journalism and journalists, I surprisingly managed to miss one of the biggest journalistic disasters in decades—the outright, large scale fraud perpetrated by Der Spiegel reporter and repeated award-winner Claas Relotius. (See e.g. an extensive Der Spiegel text [1] and other texts linked from there, as well as English Wikipedia [2] and German Wikipedia [3].)

*See e.g. [4], [5], [6], [7], [8], [9].

Notwithstanding that I am half a year late to the party, there is plenty here that I wish to discuss, especially in the light of the “Lügenpresse”* and “fake news” controversies.

*A derogatory German word for the press, often used by populists. A reasonable literal translation is “press of lies”; a more idiomatically plausible, “liar press”.

Until now, I have considered “Lügenpresse” to be mostly a misattribution of intention, where the true issue is not deliberate lies but a mixture of differences of opinion, the indisputable ideological slant of too many journalists, and the ever-manifesting absurd incompetence of journalists—a failure to apply Hanlon’s razor by those critical of journalism. Events like these make me wonder. Is this a single, regrettable instance*, or is it just the top of the ice-berg?

*A cliched, almost knee-jerk claim by German organizations, when exposed to criticism, is that a particular problem is a “bedauerlicher Einzelfall”—this even when there is good reason to believe that the problem is either occurring often or a sign of a more pervasive underlying problem.

Journalistic fraud does exist, two of the more well-known instances being Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night and the scandal around Stern* and Hitler’s diaries, and I see at least two causes why it might be relatively common today: Firstly, the move towards more free-lancing journalists and the need to be published to earn money, including that some online sources (e.g. Slant) pay writers based on clicks on their articles. If fiddling with the facts, or even outright invention, brings a better chance of being paid and/or more payment, then it can safely be assumed that some** will cheat. Secondly, many journalists are strongly Left-leaning, engaged in the PC movement, and/or see themselves as world-improvers. Looking at such people elsewhere, notably in the blogosphere and in general politics, they often have a “the end justifies the means” attitude and are very prejudiced about what their opponents and perceived enemies actually believe, say, do, whatnot. As with them, it would be unsurprising if some journalists fell for the temptation to fiddle with the facts to show the “truth”—e.g. that a “known” xenophobe who denies being one is “revealed” through some fake statements or untrue allegations.*** In addition, there is great reason to believe that “artistic liberties” are common, e.g. through exaggeration, presenting speculation as fact, oversimplification, paraphrasing while claiming to quote (also see an excursion), misleading translation,**** quoting out of context, use of unattributed and unverified material from others to flesh out own researches, … While these are typically less harmful, they often still leave readers with a faulty impression and are highly disputable from an ethical point of view.

*Another German magazine and one of Der Spiegel’s main competitors.

**How many is a very different question, and only speculation is possible without actual investigation. I do note, however, that some press reactions mentioned in [3] could point to a fairly large problem, including that Georg Altrogge claims that Der Spiegel could have provided fertile ground (“Nährboden”) for cheats through its story-telling attitude, that Michael Hopp admits to having cheated extensively (“immer viel”) himself, that Dirk Gieselmann (another award-winner) has been fired from several magazines, …

***This not to be confused with blanket claims that e.g. “X is a xenophobe”, “X is extreme Right”, etc., which do abound but might be explainable through prejudice or ignorance even when actually incorrect. These too are a problem, but they are not necessarily fraudulent. To boot, many U.S. claims about e.g. “racist” are rooted in a lack of understanding what “racist” means, including confusing it with “racial”. (A good example is a reference to the German AfD as “far Right” that I saw while reading up for this text. The claim is at best an exaggeration, even the uselessness of the term “Right” aside, but might well be explainable by the foreign source being ignorant of German politics and/or simply having uncritically listened to one of AfDs many, mostly Leftist, detractors.)

****During the invasion of Iraq (when I still occasionally watched TV), the German news senders often distorted English originals. My memories are understandably vague, but consider e.g. a scenario where a U.S. spokesman says “we do not know” one day, which is rendered as “the U.S. denies”, and the spokesman says “now we know—and it is true” a few days later, which is then rendered as “the U.S. has been forced to admit”. This is not to be confused with mistranslations out of ignorance or carelessness, which are quite common too.

Fact checking is a critical issue in journalism: Apparently, Der Spiegel has one of the largest fact-checking departments around and prides it self on its attention to detail. That it did not do its job well enough is quite clear, and this has been a source of criticism. However, I might be willing to overlook this instance—the main purpose of “internal”* fact-checking is to discover errors made by honest authors, e.g. through sloppy work, memory errors, or similar. Indeed, some amount of fact-checking is needed even by the author, himself. Detecting whole-sale invention or large-scale deliberate manipulation is a secondary purpose, potentially a lot harder to do, and there were no obvious signs that a greater-than-usual diligence was needed here**. When we look at the overall situation, however, it is quite dire: The lack of fact-checking, insight, and critical thinking displayed again and again, in article after article, is horrifying. A reasonable famous example is the 1990s reports of women overtaking men in distance running, which I dealt with in parts of an older text on simplistic reasoning. Or consider the time when I encountered an FAZ*** article speaking of the age (!) of the universe in light(!)years. Or consider the many, many variations of the long debunked 77 cents on the dollar fraud, which simply does not hold up to critical thinking. Or how about my discussion in [9]? This is a massive problem in the world of journalism.

*E.g. by a magazine with regard to its authors, as opposed to by a magazine with regard to politicians.

**In contrast, with Hitler’s diaries such diligence was quite obviously needed, and there we have a true fact-checking scandal.

***The most prestigious daily paper in Germany.

Indeed, the disputable attitude towards fact checking, critical thinking, etc. is displayed by two quotes from [1]:

The fact-checking and research department at DER SPIEGEL is the journalist’s natural enemy

A sound attitude would be the exact opposite: It is the (competent and professional) journalist’s best friend.

You [the editor] are more interested in evaluating the story based on criteria such as craftsmanship, dramaturgy and harmonious linguistic images than on whether it’s actually true.

WTF!!! I am at loss for words to express how idiotic, how mindlessly unprofessional, how fraudulent this attitude is. To boot, claims like “dramaturgy and harmonious linguistic images” bring us to another problem with journalism:

The focus on entertainment over information. The purpose of journalism is to bring information to the people—not entertainment and certainly not fake news. If I want to be entertained by something not true, there is always “Harry Potter”. A journalist (ditto, m.m., a news-paper or magazine) who forgets this is not worthy of his job.

Worse, this attitude usually leads to horrendously poor writing, as exemplified by several of the quotes of Claas Relotius articles that I encountered: this is supposed to be award-winning journalism?!? This cheesy, uninformative, emotionally manipulative nonsense!?!?

To get a better impression, I tried to read one of his works, specifically the infamous El Paso text/“Jaegers Grenze”* (co-authored by Moreno) that brought on the revelations. I started skimming after about a quarter and stopped reading entirely about half-way through: as far as journalism goes, it is horrible, even the fraud aspect aside. It is uninformative, speculative, jumps randomly from sub-topic to sub-topic, lacks a clear purpose, is filled with uninteresting trivia, and has a style of writing more suitable for a pure work of fiction—but it fails to reach the level of good fiction. This is the type of writing that makes me loathe reading the works of journalists—even were every word true, it would be a poor read. Still, Relotius won award after award… These awards might show an even greater problem than Relotius cheating: an anti-journalistic, pro-entertainment, and reader-despising attitude obviously present in journalism in general.

*In German. Beware that a warning note by Der Spiegel states that the text remains published until an internal commission has finished its investigation, with the implication that it might be removed afterwards.

Indeed, many of the articles on the scandal are themselves proof of poor journalism and writing, e.g. an apology piece on Fergus Falls, where there is an undue* amount of first-person perspective, irrelevant detail, and misguided and amateurish “human interest” angles, as e.g. with** “He laughs when I ask him if he’s angry. We’re eating pizza at a restaurant on Union Avenue that belongs to the mayor. “I first thought the article was a piece of satire,” says Becker. “I don’t feel offended at all.” He says he thought the writer was friendly – and he still does today. A nice guy. Becker says he’s worried about him.”—further proof that the typical journalist is best kept away from journalism.

*Not all first-person perspective is undue, e.g. because a certain text deals with or draws on personal experiences, attempts to differ between fact and own opinion, tries to give the author’s take of an issue, … This is the case with many of my own texts (and this sentence is it self an example of a valid use) and the quotes of what Becker said above are examples of legitimate uses, because his side of the story is the topic. However, this is only rarely relevant to journalism, which should strive to be as disconnected from the author as possible (for instance, if the journalist had made Becker’s statements, they would have been out of place). Moreover, very many journalist uses miss the point entirely, amounting to irrelevant nonsense—as e.g. with the above “We’re eating pizza at a restaurant on Union Avenue that belongs to the mayor.”, which is pointless “human interest” blurb for the dumbest of the readers.

**The quoted text in original used “type writer” quotes around the statements by Becker. If they appear as “fancy” quotes, WordPress has distorted them.

If we look at the tendency of the fakery by Relotius, there are some that could be seen as potentially distortive Leftist propaganda including “Touchdown” (a piece on Kaepernick), “Jaegers Grenze” (bigoted White men vs. a Honduran woman), and “In einer kleinen Stadt” (people in Fergus Falls dislike Mexicans). Looking at the overall list from [3], I am inclined give the benefit of a doubt and assume that he is mostly looking for sob stories, “human interest” stories, and similar; however, it is noteworthy that journalists (in at least Germany and Sweden) tend to be Left-leaning and often slant their reporting accordingly. This includes Der Spiegel and, to a very high degree, its “Spiegel Online” (“SPON”) sister, where the mixture of low quality and ever-recurring Leftist thought eventually drove me away.*

*The last straw was an opinion piece calling for journalists to be activists, to throw away objectivity, and to fulfill their “democratic role” (“demokratische Aufgabe”) by telling people what to think—and it does so while painting an incorrect picture of the scope and (partially) character of immigration resistance, alleging Right-wing hatred while ignoring the larger problem on the Left, over-looking the already strong Leftist media-bias, etc. This is exactly what a good journalist must not do, and the fact that too many journalists have already gone down this path is a major reason why current journalism is so useless. Indeed, that piece was strongly on my mind when I wrote my suggestions for a new press ethics (cf. [6]).

Juan Moreno, who first* saw through the fraud and pushed for investigations, is an interesting contrast, giving me some hope that the profession of journalism is not entirely beyond redemption. To boot, I can sympathize strongly with his adversities through my own experiences as someone with the ability to spot potential problems, and who often has been met with disbelief worthy of a Cassandra or even the accusation of having a hidden agenda. (Later events have usually proved me right.)

*Or was he? Possibly, others preceded him, but lacked the integrity, courage, and/or persistence to achieve his results… [3] points to some known suspicions as early as 2017…

Excursion on my own experiences with the press:
I can give two pertinent examples relating to myself in the press (both from my youth in Sweden; both relating to “Bergslagsposten”, the small local paper):

Firstly, and fairly harmlessly, I was one of several library visitors polled by a journalist concerning our reading preferences. My answers to several questions were pieced together and presented as a much more fluent version—appearing to be a direct quote. (An interesting, but off-topic, parallel is found in a recent text on the German police.)

Secondly, I wrote several “letters to the editor”—that all invariably were mangled in various ways, e.g. through introducing spelling errors not present in the original or leaving out words. Some excuse might have been found in my poor hand-writing, but this continued even when I switched to typing.* I remember particularly well how repeated uses of “ideologi” (“ideology”) or one of its variations were changed to (likely) “idologi” through-out one text. The frequency of such problems was so large that I am not willing to apply Hanlon’s Razor. Instead, I must conclude that deliberate manipulations to my disadvantage took place. (While I cannot say for certain by whom, I strongly suspected a junior-staff member of the paper who was also a member of the semi-rabid youth organization of the Communist Party—seeing that my letters were often critical of the strongly Left-leaning Swedish society and that I was a known member of a libertarian and neo-liberal youth organization.)

*Note that this was at a time when computers and printers were much rarer than today.

Disclaimer: I wrote most of the above a few weeks ago. I have not verified that the various links contain the same contents at the time of publication as they did at the time of writing.

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Written by michaeleriksson

June 13, 2019 at 8:22 pm

One Response

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  1. […] I published a text on gross journalistic fraud; today, I am met with news sources claiming that RTL* has discovered at least seven cases of […]


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