Schadenfreude of the year: Der Spiegel

Three pillars of the global elite media establishment have egg on their faces in the scandal engulfing Germany's most prestigious news organization, Der Spiegel.  This brings new depth to an expression that the English language has borrowed from German: "schadenfreude," the admittedly perverse pleasure that people take in the woes of others.

Most AT readers are aware that the proud and mighty Spiegel "took fake news to an 11" by publishing a sneering profile of Fergus Falls, Minnesota that was full of made-up slanders.  Der Spiegel occupies a special place in German journalism, famous for investigative reporting and (falsely, we now know) renowned for its fact-checking.  Its headquarters building on the Hamburg waterfront reflects its pride and prominence.

Photo credit: HH Oldman.

The purported yokels of Fergus Falls managed to so thoroughly debunk the lies about them peddled by Claas Relotius that even CNN has had to yank the award it gave him: "Journalist of the year, 2014."  What makes this comeuppance even more delicious for conservatives is that Columbia Journalism conferred a sort of journalistic sainthood on Der Spiegel in 2010, declaring it "The world's largest fact checking organization."  The fine folks of Fergus Falls, by exposing the slipshod standards employed by three prominent and pompous shills on two continents, Der Spiegel and CNN, have rocketed my schadenfreude into orbit.

Isn't it time for CJR to publish a retraction?

Der Spiegel is now positioning itself as a victim.  Its own involvement in publishing what appears to be actual criminality is being exposed as Relotious's work finally gets the scrutiny it never had before, when his lies flattered the pompous prejudices of his publishers.

Bruce Golding reports in The New York Post:

Der Spiegel said Sunday it had uncovered information that Claas Relotius allegedly solicited contributions after writing an article about Syrian urchins living on the streets of Turkey – but directed donations to his own bank account.

"Der Spiegel will give all the information it collects to public prosecutors as part of a criminal complaint," the magazine said on its Web site, according to Agence France-Presse.

The influential publication said it was unaware of the purported charity campaign at the time and didn't know how much money Relotius, 33, may have raised, apparently by responding to readers who emailed him after reading his July 2016 report.

A Turkish photographer who worked with Relotius has since claimed that the article has major inaccuracies, and Der Spiegel said Relotius apparently invented the two young siblings who featured prominently in it.

He later wrote about trying to help the children get adopted by a German family, which Der Spiegel also said appeared to be a lie.

Given Der Spiegel's decades of emphasizing its fact-checking capabilities, its apparent collaboration with a fraudulent appeal for funds may have civil or criminal law implications, though I am not a lawyer in either the U.S. or Germany.  But it does sound like one of those complaints we have seen in American courts alleging that the defendant "knew or should have known" about the fraud.

The Z Man blog has interesting comments on the broader implications for German media:

In Germany, this is quite a scandal in media circles, because Der Spiegel is like their version of [the] New York Times.  That is, it positions itself as the official arbiter of truth, with regards to public morality.  They not only decide what is true, they decide which truths can be said.  Worse yet for them, they have been bragging about their fact checking for a long time.  As a result of this tent pole toppling over, the German media is scrambling to convince everyone that it is an isolated incident, not a system failure.

The amusing bit is the German media is rushing around looking puzzled, as to how the vaunted fact checking system could have failed.  After all, the best people are in control of the media.  How could the best people have made such basic errors?  As is the case in America, whenever these things happen, the media hand-wringing is just a dodge.  What really concerns them is how easy it was for two bumpkins from dirt country to sluice out the facts from the fiction in this particular article.

That's always the thing with these scandals.  The media big shots always come off as if they have been insulted about their shenanigans being revealed.  In this case, the other major media outfits are rallying to defend Der Spiegel.  In the dreaded private sector, competitors are always quick to take advantage of the mistakes of a competitor.  In the main stream media, the opposite is always true.  They circle the wagons and begin lecturing the hoi polloi about the dangers of questioning the media.

That is the real cause of these scandals.  For a long time, the mass media in the West has been a mono-culture.  You can't have a career in the media if you don't hold all the right opinions.  To call the media an echo chamber for the left is to understate the problem.  The better analogy is a school of fish.  Each individual just reacts to those around him, giv[ing] the effect of the school having agency as a whole.  What looks like collusion is just the result of a uniformity of mind, experience and social class.

The German media and ruling class no doubt want this scandal to go away and will attempt to bury it. It exposes the casual and sloppy snobbery toward the United States that is so common in Europe as to remain unquestioned, even invisible to the locals.  But Ambassador Richard Grenell, for one, is not likely to let the matter drop:

Because I have roots in the same part of Minnesota and a love for the good people who inhabit these small towns, I would like to see the editors and top management of Der Spiegel fly to Fergus Falls to offer a formal apology to the town for their negligence and willingness to believe calumnies about them with no basis in fact.  Anything less is an inadequate response. Update: This Spiegel report, "A fantastic Town," chronicles reporter Christoph Scheuernmann's journey to Fergus Falls to apologize. It's a start:

The town also illustrates the degree to which an editorial team that liked to appear skeptical, suspicious and sharp-toothed had shown almost blind faith in Relotius. The editorial team I work for. It's painful for me to even have to write that.

I believe it's called "too-good-to-check" in the old joke.

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