Claas Relotius was called to be one of the heads of the prestigious German magazine Der Spiegel. Young, talented, with numerous awards behind him. No one could imagine that the one considered the “pretty boy” of German journalism would become the great impostor and his name synonymous with fake news.
The person in charge of unmasking him was Juan Moreno, a journalist freelancing and the son of Spanish immigrants who left the Almeria countryside when he was 1 and a half years old to try their luck at a tire factory in Germany.
“Relotius was the most beloved person in the whole spiegel. Kind, friendly, quiet, humble and that cocktail was dangerous. I was messing with someone who was not only great and had won so many awards, but people loved him very much, ”Juan Moreno tells BBC Mundo on the occasion of the premiere this Thursday of the film based on his book “A thousand lines of lies”.
Moreno had to fight against that image and against his bosses. He was an outsider, a outsider that he was questioning the integrity of a journalist whose talent they said was one of those “that only emerge once every 100 years”, a 33-year-old journalist who in a few weeks was going to occupy the position of section chief in the magazine .
But how was the whole process to bring to light a scandal that shook the foundations of an entire journalistic institution?
origin of the scandal
It all started with a report entitled “Jaeger’s Frontier” written from two points of view on the United States border with Mexico, in 2018, within the framework of the migrant caravans.
Moreno followed a 25-year-old Honduran woman on her trip to the United States with her daughter. Meanwhile, Relotius portrayed in the report a group of civilian militiamen from Arizona supposedly called Jaeger, Pain, Ghost, Spartan, Luger and Nailer.
The problem arose when it was time to put the report together. “There were things that did not add up”indicates the journalist about his colleague who had been working since 2011 in Der Spiegel.
Before the article was published on November 16, 2018, Moreno contacted the data and documentation verification department, where some 60 people work, but without success.
In the meantime, Relotius sent him a new version of the report that featured a new final scene, in which a militiaman was shooting at something that was moving, implying that it was a migrant.
To the strange thing that it turns out that a journalist does not include that scene at first, we must add the fact that “it is very difficult to get someone to trust you and talk, but supposedly being with someone for three days and letting you witness An assassination attempt seemed very strange to me.”
In addition, doing some research, Moreno discovered that the names of the militiamen Jaeger, Pain, Ghost and Spartan were actually from an old report published in the American magazine Mother JonesNailer of another of New York Times and Relotius’ homegrown Luger.
“I found many names, things, that once you did a little research you realized that they had been published in other media, but in a different way, with other characteristics, some scenes were the same, but some things changed.”
Report your doubts to your superiors
These inconsistencies led Moreno to talk to his bosses before the article was published to inform them of what he thought was problematic, although “not talking about falsifications, but about errors.”
“But they didn’t believe me, they thought I wanted to discredit the colleague and they made it quite clear that being autonomous as I was, this was going to have consequences and not good ones”recalls the journalist.
So little did they believe him that two weeks later they published another article by Relotius that was later found to be false as well. “Everyone was absolutely sure that Relotius had done nothing wrong,” says Moreno.
“I was in a difficult situation. The world of journalism is small and I had nothing to do with Relotius being a journalist who had won the last four most prestigious awards in German journalism and I being a freelance journalist,” he says about the journalist who was even named “Journalist of the Year” by CNN. ”.
“Relotius was something never seen before, the genius of this boy was unique. He was the Nadal of journalism”, he says about a journalist who stood out among his peers for his “ability to get incredible stories”.
The fear of losing his livelihood as the father of four daughters pushed him to want to get to the bottom of the matter and he took advantage of a work trip to the United States to go to Arizona with a photographer friend.
The five weeks that he was investigating, he remembers as “a horrible time”.
“It’s a small world and I was criticizing someone who had an impeccable reputation and was also very nice, well loved by all his colleagues, so it was a very complicated situation, a limit for me and my family.”
Moreno looked for the alleged interviewees in the report at the border.
Thanks to the photos that accompanied the report, he could see that the photos were from a well-known documentary called Land Poster and thus discover that Jaeger was actually called Chris Maloof.
He showed him a photo of Relotius, but he had never seen him in his life.
He also spoke with the alleged “Nailer,” whose real name turned out to be Tim Foley. Relotius claimed to have spoken with him, but he also denied it.
Moreno recorded the interviews on video and returned to Hamburg to show the images to his superiors, but Relotius argued that no one would admit to having committed illegal activities on video.
More than 60 articles with false information
Meanwhile, Moreno had continued to investigate the rest of Relotius’s articles.
It found that the alleged interview with the parents of Colin Kaepernick, the American football player who was heavily criticized by the US right for kneeling during the national anthem, never took place. “The entire interview was invented”.
In another report, he made an imaginary portrait of Fergus Falls, a small town in Minnesota, to which he was sent for 100 days to portray the effects of Donald Trump as US president.
“He invented things like that town was so right-wing that they had been showing the same movie for two years, american sniper, at the cinema. I think what he was doing was trying to write what people thought he thought.”
In the end, about 60 articles by Relotius turned out to be fake. “We are talking about articles that were the result of three or two months’ work. Long articles, with photos, important and many of them awarded”.
But it’s not something that came up during his work on Der Spiegel. Relotius invented his reports from the beginning of his career.
The first big story for which he won his first award was the one in which he allegedly managed to get into a maximum-security prison in the United States and spend time with the inmates, “but he was obviously never there. They don’t let anyone in.”
“It is a spectacular story. You check a bit. You see the guy with blond hair, a good face, innocent, supposedly very meticulous in the way he speaks and nobody suspects, “explains Moreno.
Everything comes to light
Once his investigation was carried out, Moreno put on the table the videos in which the protagonists denied knowing Relotius.
Given the doubts of his bosses about the truth of what they said, he told them to review the email from Foley’s wife that Relotius had presented as a defense and in which he had changed part of the content, and to call Colin Kaepernick’s lawyer to confirm.
They did and realized that Relotius was lying. “That’s where it all ended”.
The Relotius case is not an isolated case in the world of journalism. “What makes Relotius special is the dimension. It was years. It is not that it was three weeks and they caught him, but that it was years, he won many awards and was to be one of the most important journalists in Germany”, Moreno points out.
After the scandal and his dismissal, Relotius disappeared. It is only known that he lives in Germany.
“I don’t know what he’s doing. What I hope is that he does not work as a journalist, “says Moreno, who continues as a journalist freelancing in various media in Germany.
In the only interview granted later, Relotius acknowledged that “probably very few” of the 120 texts he wrote during his time as a journalist were true.
During the interview granted to the Swiss publication reportage in 2020 he explained that he wrote “with the unshakable conviction that in the narrative form of the report it would not matter if everything corresponded 1:1 with reality or not.”
He also said that he could not explain it, but that for years “He was never afraid, he never had doubts, he never had a bad conscience”.
“Writing without a brake had a very selfish function for me. It helped me cope with the moods where I lost touch with reality, to control them and keep them away from me. Long before journalism. I abused this profession in a way from the beginning,” she stated.
Throughout the conversation, Relotius portrays himself as mentally ill who had at times completely lost control of his life and his writing. He speaks of “loss of reality” and “psychotic disorders”, which were diagnosed along with “delusions”.
Der Spiegel commissioned an investigation to clarify everything that happened.
After five months of work, they concluded that there was no indication that anyone within the newsroom knew what was happening with Relotius, but they took measures to prevent it from happening again, such as requesting copies of the recordings or photos.
They also criticized how the whole thing was handled.
“The case was treated as if it were just a dispute between a fellow independent and the department’s rising star, and not a suspicion that could harm the entire company,” the commission wrote in its final report.
“The company did not do its own investigation to clarify the case. They should have done this even if they believed Relotius was innocent, because after all the accusations were serious,” they added.
“They have tried to improve everything and get more evidence. But in the end it is a trade in which you need confidence. We need confidence readers and those who do this work. If we start to think that every piece of information we read is false, we will have a very big problem”, comments Moreno.
“The trust that Claas has partially destroyed is essential for not only journalism to work, but also the entire society,” adds the now considered a kind of symbol of serious journalism that he himself denies.
“Everyone needs a character who is the symbol of clean journalism, but I don’t want to be that person, because I’m not. I am an ordinary journalist like everyone else, I make mistakes like everyone else. Of course, I do not invent”. (YO)