The cliché that wasn’t

There’s the big picture, and then there are the details. One detail is the town of Fergus Falls, Minnesota.

Claas Relotius, who spent weeks reporting in Fergus Falls last year for one of Europe’s most respected publications, could have written 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.

But he did not.

Instead, Mr. Relotius invented a condescending fiction. On the venerated pages of Der Spiegel, a German newsmagazine, Mr. 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.

A bit like Sinclair Lewis, except that Sinclair Lewis was straightforwardly writing fiction; Relotius was supposed to be writing and researching journalism.

“We’re taking the high road,” Mayor Ben Schierer said in an interview, in which he praised his city’s artsparks and schools, which mostly seemed to escape Mr. Relotius’s notice. “We’ve moved on.”

Indeed, amid the heartache and hassle, some in Fergus Falls have seized an opportunity to tell the world what their city is really like. Sure, it has its struggles and tensions. But on the whole, residents get along, there is plenty to do, people enjoy living there.

Not all small towns are hotbeds of racism (and few or none are 100% populated by racists); not all Minnesotans are Trumpers.

Because the article was published only in German, its readership in Minnesota was limited. But civic leaders commissioned a professional translation, the text of which circulated around town in a shared online document. Outrage simmered.

The article’s fabrications ranged from the trivial (an account of a foreboding forest that does not exist and a Super Bowl party that did not happen) to the personally devastating (the city administrator was falsely portrayed as a gun-obsessed, romantically challenged man who had never seen the ocean) to the downright inflammatory (Mr. Relotius claimed there was a sign that said “Mexicans Keep Out” at the entrance to town).

No no, that’s the Oval Office.

The Times took some photos.

Credit Tim Gruber for The New York Times

It doesn’t exactly look like a shithole, does it.

The county did heavily vote for Trump (64%) but that’s not all there is to say about it.

“What happened, I think, was that he was trying to look for a cliché of a Trump-voting town and he simply didn’t find it,” said Christoph Scheuermann, the Der Spiegel correspondent who visited Fergus Falls last week to apologize and write about the town’s true story.

Mr. Scheuermann said the Fergus Falls he encountered was “almost the opposite” of the one Mr. Relotius described.

“I felt a lot of warmth,” he said. “Everybody was welcoming.”

You know, if you’re a journalist looking for a cliché of a Trump-voting town and the one you’re in isn’t it, you can always go find another town…or you could write about expecting a cliché and not finding it. Just a thought.

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