Relotius scandal at “spiegel”: fraud, vanity, failure

Der Spiegel" has closed the Relotius investigation. But the scandal had systemic causes, say two former editors.

The noble feathers preferred to keep to themselves Photo: Art Lasovsky/Unsplash

It is now Steffen Klusmann’s job to promise that everything will be better after the disaster. On Saturday, the Spiegel editor-in-chief sat on a podium in Hamburg and had to face agonizing questions. On the case of the forger Claas Relotius, on Spiegel’s editorial culture, on his company’s handling of truth and fiction.

The occasion, the awarding of the Nannen Prize, which was to follow in the evening, used to be a high mass of German-language journalism, a get-together of the country’s noble feathers. This time, however, the final report of the Relotius investigation commission hung over the event like a tar-black storm cloud.

And Editor-in-Chief Klusmann did not even try to gloss over the disaster. He called the scale of the scandal "quite devastating" and also admitted that his company had at times been "too self-absorbed" "in the way we presented stories."

Klusmann has been editor-in-chief of Der Spiegel since the fall. He came from Manager Magazin, and no sooner had he moved into his office than the Relotius affair fell at his feet – the case of a much-decorated young reporter who had partially or completely falsified several of his stories. In mid-December, Der Spiegel made the case public on its own initiative and commissioned a three-person working group to look into the matter. A truth commission, so to speak. On Friday, the magazine published its report. It is astonishingly self-critical and hopes to be able to eradicate the systemic errors through meticulous analysis. If all this makes Der Spiegel better, the introduction says, then perhaps one could later speak of a "salutary shock.

Much of what is criticized today has always been the subject of debate internally

If it were that simple. The authors of this text know Der Spiegel from their own experience, having both worked in the Bonn and Berlin capital bureaus for about two decades. Much of what is criticized today has been the subject of internal debate time and again. Also presented by the two authors. There were virtually no consequences. Until the Relotius case.

One has to concede to the commission: Its final report differs significantly from the first attempt in December. From the text that appeared at the same time as the announcement of the fraud case and which read like a novel: emotional, dramatic and worthy of a prize. It was written by Relotius discoverer and supporter Ullrich Fichtner, who has also won many awards. Now, five months later, there is brown bread instead of cake, report instead of reportage: sober and straightforward, dry and meticulous – a strong piece, completely in the tradition of the old news magazine Der Spiegel.

But even the title, "The Relotius Case," is wrong. More accurate would have been "Der Fall Spiegel. The new report refutes the version that had been widespread until then, namely that the magazine had become a victim of the clever trickster Relotius. Instead, the report is a shocking document about the understanding of journalism in one of Germany’s leading media houses, but also in the industry’s training centers.

It says: "Reportage was declared the ‘supreme discipline. Journalism students learned … to omit contradictory and unwieldy things, to tell stories in black and white, to avoid shades of gray, to subordinate reality to dramaturgy." Or also: "The narrative style, which was and is taught in reporting seminars, for example that of the ‘Reporter Forum’, makes use of the toolbox of film, comics and literature, i.e. fiction."

The report is a harrowing document about the understanding of journalism in one of Germany’s leading media houses, but also in the industry’s training institutions

And finally it says: "They [the reporters] then also told such examples from their reports, which then just sometimes more and sometimes less distorted the true story. But there was always agreement that this was allowed."

Certainly: Claas Relotius was a lone perpetrator, he falsified and deceived, and did so purposefully and artfully. There is no doubt about that. However, he says, this was made possible by an environment that virtually encouraged him to invent stories and falsify facts: Department heads who egged him on, editors-in-chief who adorned themselves with the prizes; a documentalist who was not scrupulous enough; journalism prize jurors who allowed themselves to be dazzled by the literary force of the texts. It is not surprising that the magazine’s control mechanisms failed in this race of vanities. In the Spiegel system, reporters became sun kings who were given a pass on many things, too many things.

When the story broke, Klusmann admittedly expressed his horror. He also cancelled the planned promotion of the authors and chief reporters Ullrich Fichtner and Matthias Geyer, but initially wanted to let them land softly and from then on referred to the investigation commission. The structural failure, it seemed, was to disappear behind the falsifier Relotius.

There were doubts about this version from the beginning. "The fraud has a system," wrote media expert Torsten Geiling. "We should pay more attention to the craft and less to the show when it comes to awards," demanded Zeit reporter Wolfgang Bauer.

Without question, the Spiegel society department, for which Relotius worked, has earned great merits beyond all the prizes. It set journalistic standards. Reporters from the department and the company often did outstanding work. They were on the spot when complex facts had to be processed in the shortest possible time. Long before other papers, Der Spiegel had an award-winning story on African migration to Europe in its issue. Shortly before the 2015 Paris summit, the department made the global climate crisis its cover story. Until then, the paper had persistently ignored this issue.

The society department as a state within the state

The department came into being in 2001, founded by then editor-in-chief Stefan Aust and Cordt Schnibben. Schnibben, a jack-of-all-trades in German journalism, previously an advertising copywriter and award-winning reporter for Die Zeit, was editor-in-chief of Spiegel magazine Reporter, which was discontinued in 2001 after only two years. As head of the society department, he founded the Reporter Forum, invented the Reporter Prize and later the Reporter Factory. He was the sorcerer’s apprentice who turned away in shock after Relotius was exposed. He shared that he had always considered the sober journalistic form "report" to be at least as important as reportage. It’s amazing that no one has noticed this all these years.

Schnibben turned the society department into a state within the Spiegel state, a unit with an enormous amount of power that no editor-in-chief wanted to mess with. Their bosses had informal power far beyond the department. They had a say in personnel matters, they gave the grades for good and bad journalism.

The reporters’ privileges were extensive: opulent salaries, exemption from compulsory subjects, every opportunity to travel, foreign posts of their choice if required – the niggles of everyday life took place elsewhere. Producing small reports for the Panorama pages? Not in the society department. Working for other colleagues? Only in exceptional cases. A quick article for Spiegel Online? Out of the question.

Producing small reports for the Panorama pages? Not in the society section. A quick article for Spiegel Online? Out of the question

When the Berlin head of the Germany II department once asked to attend the conferences of the noble feathers to liven up his own debates, he was refused. They preferred to keep to themselves. The Report also reports that there was downright "hatred for the society department" at the company.

In this universe, an esprit de corps flourished that was unparalleled in German journalism. The authors, especially the male ones, appeared accordingly – knowledgeable, exalted, untouchable. Criticism of the content was rebuffed, also with the help of the Spiegel bosses. Warnings from experienced employees about the "perceived journalism" of the Reporters Guild were dismissed as envy-driven nagging. When Spiegel TV colleagues noticed discrepancies in Relotius’ award-winning story "Lion Cubs" in 2017 during research in Iraq, their tips petered out. The in-house "Innovation Report" published in 2016, which illuminated the magazine’s internal incrustations and did not leave out the society department, was swiftly put aside by the then editors-in-chief.

Self-critical reflection and an open culture of error were missing before the Relotius scandal. And so it is not surprising that the criticism sent to Der Spiegel by two residents of the U.S. village of Fergus Falls described by Relotius in a tweet either did not reach the society department (unlikely) or was simply ignored there (very likely).

Central laboratory of the German whitewashers

The society department developed into a cosmos of its own in German journalism. There was hardly an award-winning writer or author who did not receive offers from this department. And very few of them turned it down. Der Spiegel’s society section was the central laboratory of the German writers of fiction, the Olympus of the writing industry. That’s how they saw themselves, and that’s how they were seen from the outside.

In this cosmos, only two currencies counted and still count: the elegantly told story and the journalism prize. And because the Henri Nannen Award wasn’t enough, Schnibben and others created the German Reporter Award in 2009, "by journalists for journalists. When Spiegel then brought back trophies from neither the Nannen nor the Reporter Prize, which rarely happened, nervousness broke out in the editor-in-chief and the society department.

Horand Knaup and Hartmut Palmer were employees in the Bonn and Berlin capital bureaus of the Spiegel, Palmer for 23 years, Knaup for 19.

The fatal thing was that many editorial departments and even some journalism schools adopted this philosophy – stories, events and incidents had to be told brilliantly, complex facts had to be described as far as possible on the basis of the people involved. In-depth knowledge of the subject matter was considered helpful, but not essential. And when the author then succeeded in "crawling into almost every head that stands in the way and reporting from inside it how it thinks and feels in this head," as Claudius Seidl mocked in the FAZ years ago, that was considered a journalistic masterstroke. At least from the point of view of the reportage experts.

Journalism and literature began to merge. And no one intervened. Not in the editorial offices, not in the training centers, not in the prize juries, and not even in the academic world. The question of whether the paper was still a news magazine at all, with all its reports and portraits, was dismissed with reference to the occasional scoops by investigative colleagues.

Exaggeration of the "supreme discipline" of reportage

The result was a complete exaggeration of the "supreme discipline" of reportage. Not only at Der Spiegel, but also in other editorial departments. When "good stuff" came, as Fichtner confessed, when Relotius and others leafed through the perfectly staged narrative, the makers were "thrilled." Insight? Depth of focus? Penetration of the problem? It didn’t matter. The main thing was that the dramaturgy and narrative flow were right. And sometimes also the political direction.

Other Spiegel departments also sometimes twisted the truth into shape. At times, it was common practice in the Berlin capital office to draft the script for the central political story on Friday afternoon as early as Monday morning. Changes to the script forced by reality were unwelcome and always associated with in-depth discussions.

The glorification of the genre was always accompanied by the ambition to be at the top of the major awards ceremonies. At these events, the kings of the guild were proclaimed again and again – with the participation of authors, editors-in-chief, presenters or even actors. No one dared to criticize the genre or the system. Even the jurors and ceremonial speakers who decorated the circus are now under criticism. "The speeches of the laudators now read like real satire," the commission report states soberly.

Industry incense and glamour

Anyone who was present at these self-stagings could only marvel. The industry celebrated itself. Often in the Hamburg Schauspielhaus, sometimes in the Elbphilharmonie, always surrounded by much industry incense and glamor, the ceremonies were incestuous events. Last Saturday at the Nannen Award, things were more modest, and the mood was reportedly bad. The former greats of the trade, especially those of the damaged magazine, had stayed home anyway.

These stagings and the trophies captured in the process fueled vanity at the Ericus top like nowhere else in German journalism. Quite a few of the Spiegel authors created Wikipedia entries for their awards and book publications. Many Spiegel employees inside and outside the department have long been annoyed by the virile behavior. "A real man’s economy," moaned one even recently.

It was men who hired Relotius. It was men who dragged the matter out, but in the end it was a woman, namely the then co-head of department ozlem Gezer, who extracted his confession from Relotius in a night session lasting several hours.

With so much tinsel, it was no coincidence that the legendary documentation of the house was no longer able to offer any resistance. Normally, documentation is supposed to check every fact, every figure, every name for accuracy. However, it is never immune to errors and distortions, especially in stories from abroad.

For highly decorated reporters, the check has always been a rather troublesome thing anyway. "The documentarian at Der Spiegel is the journalist’s natural enemy," noted designated editor-in-chief Ullrich Fichtner in December about the follow-up check. But this never took place on an equal footing. What documentarian wants to check a quote from a war-wounded boy in Mosul if the author is self-confident enough? Who can guess what moves Martin Walser when he learns that Elfriede Jelinek will receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, or what goes through Uli Hoeneb’ mind when he meets with Pep Guardiola to negotiate a contract?

No critical reappraisal

The fact that the documentation made mistakes happened again and again. Spiegel’s reporting on the alleged horseshoe plan in Kosovo was questionable, and Joschka Fischer’s visa affair even occupied a Bundestag investigative committee. The blunders were never critically addressed in the editorial department.

And it is much more than a Spiegel problem. While reportage in German journalism experienced an enormous revaluation, clarification was neglected: Investigating and describing actual conditions, uncovering problems that do not equal scandals, tracking down societal undesirable developments, inadequacies in institutions and ministries – not only at Spiegel, but everywhere in the industry, it was diminished.

One could have observed the change – if one had wanted to. Whereas in 2002 Spiegel had about 20 colleagues (excluding executives and reporters) monitoring German domestic politics, today it is down to 10, according to the imprint. While all press offices in political Berlin have been upgraded, many newspaper and magazine offices have been systematically deprived of staff – including Spiegel’s capital city office.

Ministries such as those for research or development cooperation are now only sporadically monitored, departments such as the environment, transport or even the railroads are only occasionally accompanied. Where journalism is supposed to prove itself in its role as a watchdog of political processes, the gaps are getting bigger and bigger. Whereas in Bonn the defense editor once knew every pilot in the air force and almost every general personally and based a large part of his stories on documents from the ministries, today headlines are generated with quotes from politicians or small questions. The journalistic output is modest in both cases.

Where journalism is supposed to prove itself in its role as a watchdog of political processes, the gaps are widening

A little blasphemy that slipped out of the mouth of a top Berlin official in a background interview these days is revealing: "Journalists don’t know anything anymore. We hold teaching sessions when we sit down with them for background rounds." The man is relaxed: "For us, of course, it makes life easier."

And those deep gaps torn by the dismantling of journalism, they try to fill. With pomp. And window dressing. And meanwhile, who knew in advance that the Federal Ministry of Transport was planning to introduce highway tolls in October 2020? No one.

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