Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Making stuff up to fulfill a distant appetite for rural tropes

Medium published this story a week ago, dateline Fergus, Falls, Minnesota, population 13,138 and the county seat of Otter Tail County, population 57,303.  Fergus Falls was the subject of a Der Spiegel (German magazine) story--the Trump country journalism variety--that was subsequently revealed as a fraud.  That is, the journalist, Claas Relotius, made up a lot of stuff about Fergus Falls and its denizens.  Michele Anderson and Jake Krohn report for Medium.  Anderson and Krohn are both residents of Fergus Falls, and they list the 11 most important things Relotius got wrong (to put is charitably) or just manufactured (to put it less charitably).  Here are just a few, from the sublime to the ridiculous, starting with the latter--oops, nix that.  All of them are fairly ridiculous and all of them confirm rural stereotypes suggesting that rural people have had limited life experiences (e.g., have never been anywhere) and are focused on the military, as manifest in a very long and successful run of the movie "American Sniper" at the Fergus Falls cinema.  Relotius wrote:
At the entrance, just before the station, there is a sign with the American stars and stripes banner, which reads: “Welcome to Fergus Falls, home of damn good folks.”
In fact, the real-life sign just offers a bland, "Welcome to Fergus Falls." 

A few of the inaccuracies involve how locals were depicted.  Here's the most outrageous (to my mind):  
2. The gun-toting, virgin City Administrator 
Der Spiegel wrote:
Andrew Bremseth would like to marry soon, he says, but he was never together with a woman. He has also never seen the ocean. 
The Medium expose comments: 
Relotius chose to put the spotlight on Fergus Falls city administrator, Andrew Bremseth, as the main character in his article. We have spoken to Bremseth at length regarding the parts of the story that feature him, and Relotius got three facts right:
  • Bremseth’s age (27) 
  • That he grew up in Fergus Falls 
  • That he went to university in South Dakota 
Everything else, from the claim that Bremseth carries a Beretta 9mm on his person while at work (“I would never ever wear a gun to work, and I don’t even own a Beretta.”), his disdain for a potential female president, his comment that Trump would “kick ass” (“Never said that”), and even his college-era preference for 18th century French philosophers (“Never read them”) and the New England Patriots (“I’m not a fan of them at all”), is complete fiction. Says Bremseth, “Anyone who knows anything about me, this [portrayal] is the furthest from what I stand for.” 
Perhaps the oddest fiction in a list of many is Relotius’ depiction of Bremseth as someone who “would like to marry soon…but he has not yet been in a serious relationship with a woman. He has also never been to the ocean.” 
We can attest that Bremseth has indeed been to the ocean, by his account, “many times” and is currently happily involved in a multi-year, cohabitational relationship with a woman named Amber. In fact, here’s a picture of the two of them in front of, all things, an ocean.
Anderson and Krohn write near the end of their story: 
[I]t seems to me that Relotius’ overseas readers might appreciate knowing that small American towns are more complex than they imagine — that die-hard liberals like me can still magically live alongside conservative Republicans — that sometimes we even find some common ground and share a meal together, and take the time to try to understand each other’s viewpoints. You see, we’re definitely not perfect here in Fergus Falls, and many of us feel a lot of responsibility right now, considering that our friends, family and neighbors voted against their own interests in 2016. But we also know how it feels to be ignored in policy and media for decades only to be lectured by ignorant articles such as this after so much silence about our challenges.
Don't  miss this story in its entirety.  It's a fun read, and helps establish that diversity of thought is alive and well in rural America, while also suggesting a bit about how those diverse political perspectives mesh in the flyover states  (hint:  it requires tolerance, civility and mutual respect).  The story also provides insights into the significant failures of even the main-stream media (think fact-checking!).

Post script:  The New York Times has just published this story about the matter under the headline, "Minnesota Town Defamed by German Reporter Ready to Forgive."  Matt Furber and Mitch Smith characterize what Relotius did thusly:
Relotius portrayed Fergus Falls as a backward, racist place whose residents blindly supported President Trump and rarely ventured beyond city limits. He made up details about a young city official. He concocted characters, roadside signs and racially tinged plotlines.
They also note that Der Spiegel has recently fired Relotius, who was recently found to have fabricated other stories from the around the world.   The New York Times also notes some of the more positive things about Fergus Falls that Relotius might have chosen to report:
about the many residents who maintain friendships across partisan lines, about the efforts to lure former residents back to west-central Minnesota or about how a city of roughly 14,000 people maintains a robust arts scene. 
To give a sense of the place, he could have described local landmarks like the giant statue of Otto the Otter. Or the Minnesota-shaped welcome sign next to the Applebee’s. Or the expansive prairie that surrounds the town.
Postscript:  From the Washington Post about journalists reporting what they think we want to hear, and how this practice persists in the era of easy fact checking. 

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