The wonderboy of German journalism tricked readers

Thousand lines of lies. The System Relotius and German Journalism
Forfatter: Juan Moreno Rowolt
Forlag: (Tyskland)
FAKE NEWS / Claas Relotius tricked Der Spiegel's readers into fictional stories for years. Currently a self-examination and debate is underway in the German press.


The journalist who revealed the biggest press scandal in German post-war has now written a book: A thousand lines lie. Juan Moreno suspected the star reporter Claas Relotius when both were commissioned by news magazine Der Spiegel to cover immigration to Mexico from each side of the border. Relotius got in touch with the militia within days – something others had spent years accomplishing. Moreno finally proved that Relotius had popped up several people in Arizona he allegedly had talked to.

Grave Journalism

But the reveal did not come for free. Moreno's book Thousand lines of lies gives a lesson in dig journalism. He had to go to the United States for his own funds to check Relotius' sources, because the bosses in Der Spiegel countered him and defended Relotius. Moreno's criticism was perceived as an attempt to blackmail a colleague, to make a crap package. Moreno (b. 1972) was accused of being envious of the younger and successful Relotius (b. 1985), the wonderboy of German journalism. Despite his young age, he had already received 40 different journalist awards.

The standards for research, storytelling and verification were revised.

But Moreno didn't give up. He had his name on the reports they had made together. The scam could hit him in the long run. Moreno's struggle to cleanse himself and reveal the truth is a crime novel from reality. And the investigation yielded results: On December 19, 2018, Der Spiegel was able to reveal that Relotius had been fooling readers with fictional stories for several years.

Villains and heroes

Relotius had a unique ability to seem sympathetic. He was quiet, modest, and considerate. He read the expectations of those he spoke to and mirrored them: Relotius gave them what they longed to hear. His fictional reports aroused sentimental sentiment among the audience, and journalist prices hailed. All Relotius' articles are collected and posted on Der Spiegel's websites. There the magazine also tries to clean up what is the facts and fiction in Relotius' articles.

Relotius used a melodramatic narrative technique with strong emotions, villains and heroes. He drew a picture in black and white where reality gained the adventure of the fairy tale. In the book, Moreno cites the article "The Last Witness" (Der Spiegel 3.3.18) as a good example. We meet Gayle Gladdis. She travels around to look at the executions of convicted killers. Why? Her son and granddaughter were murdered. She waited for the killers to get her sentence. But in Pennsylvania they lacked civilian witnesses, a prerequisite for executing the execution. Thus, Gayle Gladdis was given a life mission: to be a civil witness to as many executions as possible.

The only problem was that the whole story was fictional, both the woman and the rule of civil witnesses executionne. Relotius received a letter from German teacher Gaby Uhl, who had corresponded with several convicts and was present at several executions in the United States. She identified several factual errors in the article. The execution was incorrectly described. Among other things, the poison injections were done manually in Texas. They were not computer controlled like in the movie Dead Man Walking, which Relotius had probably used as a source.

Claas Relotius and The Look In There Mirror That Revealed Him. Photo: Wikimedia, Der Spiegel

But what happened? She had read the online version of the article. Relotius claimed that an incorrect version had been published. He said he was just as interested in correcting the mistakes as her and would actively contribute to the investigation of the errors in his own article. Thus, a person who could reveal Relotius was brought to silence.


Moreno makes up for the status above reportagegenre. He still calls himself a reporter – and goes against those who would shun the genre after the Relotius affair. He defends the motto of Der Spiegel's founder, Rudolf Augstein (1923–2002), "Sagen, was ist": The press will convey "what is". Journalists are not perfect, they make mistakes like everyone else. But Relotius' counterfeits are of a completely different dimension.

The self-examination and debate on the case has now gone over a year in the German press. How could this forgery last for years in Europe's most renowned news magazine? The scandal led to an internal wash in #Der Spiegel#. The fact-checker who worked with Relotius is retired early, and his two former bosses have lost their jobs.

Reality got the feature of the adventure.

The newly hired chief editor Steffen Klusman has been successful fire extinguishers throughout 2019. Anyone who has caused such major errors must be responsible for it, no matter how embarrassing it may be, Klusmann points out. It was not Spiegel's internal investigation that revealed Relotius, but the freelancer Moreno, who was subsequently thwarted by his superiors.

The Independent Commission, which was to investigate the matter, submitted a report in May 2019. The security mechanisms did not work. The report distinguishes between pure falsehood and an unruly ("unsauber") working method, where the facts are subject to artificial dramaturgy. Such a method was also common in other editors, but is no longer tolerated by Der Spiegel.

The standards for research, storytelling and verification have been revised. A special agent has been set up to deal with all types of reactions to injustices, including anonymity. Klusmann ends his summary by thanking Juan Moreno and those readers who have not turned their back on the magazine and still believe that Der Spiegel will learn from their mistakes.

Movies about the scandal

German director Michael Herbig is now filming the scandal under the title Claas Relotius case. Der Spiegel's counterfeits bear major similarities with journalist Stephen Glass' about thirty articles based on fiction, published in the American magazine The New Republic. The story was revealed in 1998 and filmed under the title Shattered Glass in 2003.

also read Der Spiegel: The Mirror Reveals Internal Fraud

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