Last week, the German publication Der Spiegel was forced to fire its star performer, when it was revealed he was a fabulist. Claas Relotius had written for the publication for close to a decade. He had been handed several awards by other media organs. His exposure as a serial fabricator was the result of his piece on the small town of Fergus Falls Minnesota, after the 2016 election. The thrust of his story was that rural America voted for Trump, because it is full of xenophobic weirdos and economic losers.
His mistake was to pick on a small town in the age of the internet. The yokels were able to look up the article and compare his version of reality with their own. More important, they could go to a popular platform and post their reactions to his article, so the world could then compare his work to reality. Michele Anderson and Jake Krohn, who live in Fergus Falls, posted their analysis of the article on Medium. Eventually, it took over a year, Der Spiegel was forced to address the issue publicly.
In Germany, this is quite a scandal in media circles, because Der Spiegel is like their version of 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, giving 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.
That’s why no one at Der Spiegel, or anywhere else in the German media, noticed the fraudulence of Claas Relotius. He was writing the things his coevals and superiors said at luncheons, cocktail parties and in the office. His story about slack-jawed yokels in the American heartland ticked all the boxes popular with the left-wing cultural outlook. He was not sent there to report on the place. He was sent there to confirm what his employers already knew about Middle American and Trump voters.
This is why Western media is something worse than propaganda. The person hired by the state or hired by the corporate marketing department has self-awareness. They know their job is to polish the apple of their superiors. The tricks they employ to do that are done with a knowledge and forethought. The guy telling the public that his employer, the pesticide company, is deeply concerned about the environment does so knowing full well that no one believes him, including his family.
The media is a different thing. They really believe their own nonsense. They think they are part of a special class of human, a priestly class that not only reports facts to the public, but provides moral instruction. The mass media is so intoxicated by their own self-righteousness, they lack the ability to question their own actions. When Claas Relotius came back from the bush, reporting exactly what his bosses knew was the case, they had no reason to question it. It was too good to check.