When an out-of-town journalist showed up in Fergus Falls, Minn., in February 2017, Michele Anderson couldn’t help but feel skeptical. Claas Relotius had been telling residents that he was writing about the state of rural America under President Trump. Anderson, a community arts administrator with progressive political views, was uncomfortable with “the anthropological gaze” that had been cast on communities like her own after the 2016 election. Hopefully, she would later recall thinking, an award-winning international journalist would at least manage to capture more nuance than the pundits had in the months following the election.
As it turned out, the piece that appeared in the respected German weekly magazine Der Spiegel a month later was even worse than she could have imagined. Not only did it rely on stock stereotypes of provincial, gun-toting conservatives, but many of the details were blatantly false.