Nobody believed Spanish freelancer Juan Moreno. It was a while before he himself grasped the extent of the fabrications he had stumbled upon; embellished truths and unadulterated invention that triggered a scandal big enough to rock the foundations of the German media and prompt another global debate on fake news.
Now Moreno is considered nothing short of a hero in Germany. But the path to glory has not been easy. In order to expose a colleague who hoodwinked not only the staff of a publication but also an entire country, Moreno went through five weeks of hell.
As a mere freelancer, Moreno struggled to convince his bosses that the magazine’s star reporter, 33-year-old Claas Relotius, was making up his stories. It was a David and Goliath scenario; to his credit, Moreno, a Spanish journalist born in Germany, managed to bring down the “bigger” man.
His victory is, however, bittersweet as it comes at a cost to Der Spiegel, the German publication that sells more copies than any other serious news magazine in Europe. But it is also hard to understand how this prestigious publication could have been duped by a reporter who crafted stories that contained interviews with people he had never met and descriptions of places he had never been to; neither his bosses, his colleagues or the fact-checking department realized that more than 50 of his articles were too perfect to be true.
Moreno relates the saga from his home in the north of Berlin. He arrives almost an hour late for our meeting as he has come from giving a statement to an investigative commission at Der Spiegel. His wife, who is also a freelance journalist, is finishing a report on her laptop in the kitchen. Three of their four daughters waltz in and out of the room as we talk.
“I am no hero or great defender of the truth. I didn’t have a choice. I have four daughters and for a moment I saw myself as out of work because of an article with my name on it was riddled with errors,” he says. “Those were five dreadful weeks. I knew that something was not right, but they didn’t believe me. It was totally frustrating.”
Juan Moreno, freelance journalist
Moreno says that he spent weeks without sleeping and lost eight kilos. Claas Relotius began to dominate his day to day to the point that his two-year-old daughter was able to clearly enunciate the name. “I rose in the morning and went to bed at night with that name on my lips,” he says.
Relotius turned Moreno and his family’s lives upside down at the start of November, 2018, with a report titled “The Jaeger Border.” Moreno was in Mexico, covering a story on the migrant caravan when he got a call from Der Spiegel to say that he would be doing a report with Relotius, the magazine’s prize reporter. Moreno would accompany a migrant to the border and relate the journey while Relotius would be based in the United States among a group of vigilantes who were preparing to stop the migrants from crossing the border.
Moreno was not keen on the idea. He did not know Relotius, but he had once read an article of his about a Cuban tax consultant that had left him uneasy. Still, he did the job and “The Jaegar Border” article was published bearing both his and Relotius’s byline.
He read through it and found details that did not add up. He wrote to the fact-checking department where 60 people spend their days checking information, but it seemed nobody was prepared to take his queries seriously.
Subsequently, Relotius submitted a new draft with a different ending in which the vigilantes had fired at a moving target with the implication that the target was a migrant. The incident had not appeared in the first draft and Moreno knew it was not just unlikely but impossible that a good journalist should witness such a scene and not include it from the outset.
Moreno’s reputation was at stake and he embarked on a frenzied investigation and race against time to salvage his name. He found an article published in the US press that was suspiciously similar to the one Relotius had produced. The article also featured a vigilante called Jaeger but some of the details did not match. Later, scanning the photos Der Spiegel had acquired from The New York Times, Moreno recognized Tim Foley, a vigilante who had appeared in an award-winning documentary. Foley was famous, but Relotius had not mentioned his name. He claimed that Foley had refused to be photographed by him, which is why the pictures were bought in from outside.
The inconsistencies began to accumulate and Moreno wrote to the head of the Society section that had commissioned the report. “They wouldn’t take what I said on board. They asked me to go to Hamburg to speak to them there,” he says.
Soon afterwards, Moreno got a call from Relotius who had found out Moreno was on his tail. “Juan, you have a few things to tell me,” he said.
Moreno responded by asking a number of questions without revealing what he had learned so far. Then he decided it would be best to end the conversation. “I realized he was lying and that this was a massive problem,” he says.
“The Jaeger Border” was just the tip of the iceberg. Relotius had written 60 articles for Der Spiegel. He had also written numerous reports for other German newspapers and magazines, which are now wading through their archives to root out the invented stories. Shortly after the matter came to the attention of Der Spiegel editor-in-chief Steffen Klusmann, the publication decided to assume that all the reports written by Relotius were fabrications. “As the editors of Der Spiegel, we have to admit that we have failed to a considerable extent. Relotius succeeded in circumventing and abrogating all the quality-assurance mechanisms this company has in place,” wrote Klusmann. “At times, the protagonists in his stories did exist, but in others they did not. Most of the time, details about their backgrounds and fates were invented.” At the end of January, the magazine’s investigative team published its first findings.
But during those desperate five weeks in November, Der Spiegel was more inclined to suspect Moreno’s motives than to investigate the veracity of Relotius’ work. At the end of the day, Relotius was on contract, a valued member of the company who was well liked by his colleagues and who had won Germany’s most prestigious journalism award four times – the last time in 2018. He had also been named journalist of the year by CNN. “Everyone in Der Spiegel thought well of him. His colleagues told me, ‘If you had known him, you would not have done this’.” In fact, Relotius was on the verge of being promoted.
Above all, Relotius was a consistent source of good stories and he would submit articles that were beyond the scope of the average Der Spiegel reporter. He claimed to have got people to speak who had hitherto refused to talk to the press. His reports were well written, full of diverse quotes, action and characters. They were so good, none of the editors were inclined to ask questions. “As a section head, your first reaction on receiving stories like these is satisfaction, not suspicion,” admits Ullrich Fichtner, an editor who collaborated with the reconstruction of the case. “Relotius always submitted excellent stories […] He was a particularly valued employee.”
When Relotius was being considered for promotion, Fichtner described him as “modest, reserved, attentive and sometimes too serious. But on the whole, the kind of person whose parents you would want to congratulate.”
Moreno, on the other hand, was an outsider; a freelance reporter who worked from his home in Berlin and scarcely set foot in the head office in Hamburg. His was an exotic voice – his father was a Spaniard employed in a tire factory who had emigrated to Germany from rural Almería a year or so after Moreno was born in 1972. Moreno worked for a number of media outlets and had his own column in the Süddeutsche Zeitung until he landed the gig with Der Spiegel in 2007.
Whether on account of this background or simply because he was a freelancer, Moreno came under a great deal of suspicion when he started to question Relotius’ work. “They let me know that I would be facing serious consequences,” he says. “I had dared to cross God. I was convinced I was going to lose my job and that no one would want to hire me with such a record.”
And so the gloves came off.
Moreno spent five weeks dismantling Relotius’ stories. He took advantage of a trip to the US to carry out his own secret mission. He sought out the people who had supposedly been interviewed for the border report. He drove 800 kilometers to meet Foley. He showed him a photo of Relotius. Foley said that he had never set eyes on him. He did the same thing with Chris Maloof, another interviewee, and received the same response. He filmed these encounters and took the footage back to Hamburg. Relotius argued that he had been discussing illegal activities in his report and that nobody was going to admit they had done so on camera. Der Spiegel continued to doubt Moreno.
Moreno broadened his investigation and went into the newspaper archives. He found an article in which Relotius had supposedly spoken to the parents of Colin Kaepernick, the American football star who chose to kneel for the national anthem to protest the ongoing racism in the US. Moreno discovered that the family had at that point refused to speak to any of the press about their son’s stance, including the German press.
The next chapter in this curious tale of deceit has been recounted by Der Spiegel in a series of articles in which the publication takes responsibility for not reading the signs, and apologizes to its readers.
On December 3, at 3.05am, a woman called Janet sent an email to the magazine. Janet was in charge of press concerns for the group of vigilantes that Relotius had supposedly been with in Arizona for the border report. And her email asked how Der Spiegel could have published an article about them without any encounter taking place. Relotius managed to doctor the body of the email so that it appeared Janet was asking why he had spent so little time with them.
Ten days later, however, Relotius’ game was up. Der Spiegel bosses got a computer expert to enter the server on Moreno’s insistence which revealed that Relotius had changed the email; and that he had never actually been with the Arizona vigilantes. The day before, one of Relotius’ editors had confronted him about another fabrication, this time on Facebook. Relotius confessed. He said that he had been driven by the fear of failure. “The pressure of failing grew in direct proportion to his success,” he said. He gathered his things and left the building of the magazine that had catapulted him to the very top of his profession.
On December 22, Der Spiegel came out with a special issue with a red cover and the title: “Tell it how it is” – the words used by the magazine’s founder Rudolf Augstein, which occupy a hallowed place in the editorial offices in Hamburg; words that Relotius betrayed. Twenty-three pages of this issue were dedicated to a report on Relotius which included the admission that their editorial safeguards had failed, even when Relotius asked the translators of the international edition not to publish his piece in English; or when he asked that a photo used in the print edition not be published online.
The magazine has since created an investigative commission comprised of senior employees and the former director of Berliner Zeitung. This commission has spent months analyzing how Claas Relotius was able fabricate stories, invent characters, pull the wool over the eyes of his colleagues and trick the quality control systems with a view to adopting new controls, according to a Der Spiegel spokesman. Currently, all the articles written by Relotius appear online with a footnote warning they could be untrue.
Meanwhile, Reporter Forum, a media watchdog, has stated that Relotius has asked forgiveness and returned his four Reporter awards.
But it has also transpired that Relotius asked for money from readers who were interested in the victims who appeared in his reports. It is still not known how much money he collected. Through his lawyers, he has admitted receiving money from readers but he insists this was all donated to humanitarian causes.
The magazine has confirmed that at least part of the money has indeed gone to a NGO.
In the same statement, Relotius’ lawyers explained that their client had confessed to submitting false and erroneous facts on a number of occasions, and was sorry for what had happened; at no point had he wanted to give ammunition to those who are now using his reports for political ends as proof of the existence of fake news in mainstream media.
The fact is, the Relotius scandal has emboldened populist politicians who are determined to undermine mainstream media. The US ambassador in Berlin, Richard Grenell, Donald Trump’s right-hand man in Europe, has, for example, seized the opportunity to launch a campaign against Der Spiegel, accusing the magazine of anti-Americanism, thereby exacerbating the already rocky relationship between Berlin and Washington.
Grenell’s accusation is based on one of Relotius’ most creative reports. Headlined, “Where they pray for Trump on Sundays,” he describes a town in Minnesota that was supposedly a prime example of a Trump stronghold. The long list of fabrications in the report were identified by Michele Anderson and Jake Krohn, two residents of Fergus Falls who were enraged by what they read. The pair expose Relotius’ lies in an article of their own, including Relotius’s invented description of the town’s welcome sign and an interview with a man who he said had never been with a woman or been to the coast, sharing a photo of that same man on his Facebook page by the beach with a girl. “In 7,300 words he really only got our town’s population and average annual temperature correct [...] The rest is uninhibited fiction,” writes Anderson, who sent a message via Twitter last April to Der Spiegel, accusing the writer of invention. Her message was, however, lost in the magazine’s social media traffic. The fallout has been such that Der Spiegel decided to send its Washington correspondent to rewrite the story and say sorry while they are at it.
Relotius’s deceit and what has become known as Speigel-gate has also opened the floodgates of a global debate on the future of journalism in the era of fake news. The question is how far the media is prepared to go to entice readers to their site or publication and at what cost to the truth? This is what media analysts call, the risk of narrative seduction. Certain old-timers in journalism are warning of the risks of being taken in by so-called incredible stories, as if reality itself were not good enough.
Meanwhile, Juan Moreno is still reeling from the experience. He says he has been shocked by the power of persuasion that worked like a spell even on veteran journalists who might be assumed to be more cynical. “He hoodwinked us all and he would have fooled me too if I had met him,” he says.
In fact, Moreno found it hard to get his head around the scale of the deceit. “I think that I believed there were certain rules we all follow,” he says.
Der Spiegel is currently taking a close look at its editorial practices while it awaits the results of the investigation. Relotius is keeping quiet. And Moreno, who has received hundreds of messages of congratulations and various work offers, has returned to his daily routine as a freelance reporter.
English version by Heather Galloway.