It was widespread long before: We'll return tomorrow to Donald Trump's alleged bone spurs and to These Presidential Historians Today.
More specifically, we'll review what Michael Beschloss recently said. We think there's a point to be made.
That said, there are several obvious points to be drawn from the front-page report in today's New York Times concerning Fergus Falls.
Fergus Falls is a town of roughly 14,000 souls in west central Minnesota, trending toward the Dakotas. As is now being widely discussed, the fraudulence arrived in Fergus Falls in the aftermath of Donald J. Trump's 46 percent win in the 2016 White House election.
Warning! Trump got 64 percent of the vote in Otter Tail County, of which Fergus Falls is the county seat. This made Fergus Falls a natural target for the sort of fraudulence which is widespread among our race.
Matt Furber and Mitch Smith describe the fraud today. The fraudulence came from a major newspaper from Over There. The Times report starts like this:
FURBER AND SMITH (12/29/18): 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.Relotius "invented a fiction" concerning "a backward, racist place." He concocted characters, roadside signs and racially tinged plotlines.
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.
Needless to say, that isn't the fault of other journalists. But among the fictions Relotius published in Der Spiegel, he even offered this:
FURBER AND SMITH: When [Relotius] was exposed, the fact that his portrayal of Fergus Falls was false went public, too, as well as the efforts of some people in town to document what he got wrong.Surely, Der Spiegel obtained a photograph of that remarkable roadside sign before it published that accusation.
Soon, the town found itself in the midst of an international furor that it did not ask to be part of. The American ambassador to Germany accused Der Spiegel of a pattern of journalistic malpractice. National and international news outlets have visited the city, about 175 miles northwest of Minneapolis. Painful memories of being lied about have resurfaced.
The fabrications in the article 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—falsely, residents say—that there was a sign that said “Mexicans Keep Out” at the entrance to town). He seemed to conflate and invent biographies for different Hispanic people and said “American Sniper” had been playing for months on end at the local movie theater, a claim rebutted by residents.
Well, apparently, no, it did not. Nor do Furber and Smith seem entirely willing to say that they know that this "fabrication" (their assessment) really and truly was "false."
Whatever! This report seems to chronicle the latest example of flatly fraudulent fictive "reporting," a type of journalistic malfunction which appears from time to time.
It also chronicles the efforts of some people in Fergus Falls to challenge the fraud. Three cheers for Michele Anderson, whose challenge to Der Spiegel apparently drew no response:
FURBER AND SMITH: Michele Anderson, who works for a local arts nonprofit, said she had been eager to read Mr. Relotius’s work and used Google’s translation service last year to convert the German text to English. The translation was imperfect, but it was immediately clear that the story was a fabrication. When Ms. Anderson saw someone praise the article on Twitter in April 2017, she replied that the story was false, a “hilarious, insulting excuse for journalism.” For more than a year, Der Spiegel did not respond.Someone had loved the report on Twitter! There's a lot of that going around!
As the truth spread—that the story was not only largely false, but also deeply insulting—residents began weighing their options. City officials discussed whether they had any legal recourse. Ms. Anderson and a friend began compiling a list of the article’s inaccuracies. But unsure what options they had and not wanting to draw more negative attention, residents mostly kept their anger within city limits until Mr. Relotius’s broader misdeeds were exposed this month.
The Der Spiegel report seems to have been the latest instance of flat-out, fraudulent journalistic invention. In this country, we've had major examples of this type of journalistic fiction in the past thirty years—from Jayson Blair at the New York Times and Stephen Glass at the New Republic, to cite two high-profile examples.
That said, our discourse is awash in commentary which falls just short of this level of fraud. Meanwhile, our upper-end "news reporting" has often been driven by such fiction-based writing, in ways which have changed the course of world history and taken many lives.
The twenty-month coverage of Candidate Gore fell just short of this level of fraud. That coverage sent George W. Bush to the White House and children in Iraq to their deaths.
The coverage of Candidate (Hillary) Clinton often adopted a similar cast. The New York Times' giant, sprawling "news report" about Uranium One fell just short of being outright fraud when it appeared in April 2015. We'd say this ridiculous October 2016 front-page report about the moral greatness of the truth-tellers Flowers and Hamzy didn't fall far behind, based mainly on the three million facts the news report chose to withhold.
The lunacy of this "news reporting" fell just short of outright fraud. That said, there's one big difference between those cases and the case of Fergus Falls:
The fraudulent treatment of Fergus Falls has now been widely debunked and discussed. By way of contrast, the fraudulence of the New York Times cannot be reported or discussed. Any such conduct would be forbidden by the tenets of Hard Pundit Law, by the unyielding code of silence observed within the guild.
Here at this site, we wrote for years, including for twenty months in real time, about the fraudulent coverage of Candidate Gore. But because the fraud was being conducted by the Washington Post and the New York Times, it was then, and it remains today, undiscussable within the system.
In one glorious exception, Vanity Fair published this October 2007 report by Evgenia Peretz, a report which was almost wholly based on our own earlier work. There it was, at full length, in a major publication.
No discussion ensued. For the criminal class which conspired to kill all those kids in Iraq, any such discussion would have constituted a violation of law.
How about that fraudulent report about Hillary Clinton and Uranium One? Here too, the fairly obvious fraudulence has never been discussed in public or explained by the Times.
It has been discussed in private (in effect)! In August 2017, Harvard's Berkman Klein Center published a lengthy, deracinated report beneath this intriguing title:
PARTISANSHIP, PROPAGANDA, & DISINFORMATIONIncluded deep within the report was a lengthy discussion of the role played by the Times report in making Uranium One a major part of anti-Clinton propaganda. That said, the Harvard reported appeared several years too late, and it was written in the abstractified style which seems intended to ensure that it will never be read or discussed by anyone in the outside world.
Online Media & the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election
The authors did find time to praise themselves for their tireless, exhaustively-staffed, well-funded efforts. The report starts like this:
FARIS, ROBERTS, ETLING, BOURASSA, ZUCKERMAN AND BAKLER (8/17): This paper is the result of months of effort and has only come to be as a result of the generous input of many people from the Berkman Klein Center and beyond.Who didn't fund this project? Meanwhile, the tireless authors worked "for months," helped by a cast of thousands.
Jonas Kaiser and Paola Villarreal expanded our thinking around methods and interpretation. Brendan Roach provided excellent research assistance. Rebekah Heacock Jones helped get this research off the ground, and Justin Clark helped bring it home. We are grateful to Gretchen Weber, David Talbot, and Daniel Dennis Jones for their assistance in the production and publication of this study.
This paper has also benefited from contributions of many outside the Berkman Klein community. The entire Media Cloud team at the Center for Civic Media at MIT’s Media Lab has been essential to this research.
Natalie Gyenes and Anushka Shah provided research insights and Media Cloud expertise. Rahul Bhargava, Linas Valiukas, and Cindy Bishop built the platform that made this work possible. John Kelly and Vlad Barash provided important insights into the role of social media in the election, leading us to new hypotheses and ideas that shaped the paper’s development. Matt Higgins helped lay a firm foundation of thought and hypotheses upon which this work was completed. Philipp Nowak provided valuable early research assistance.
Participants of Data & Society’s Propaganda & Media Manipulation Workshop in May 2017 provided valuable feedback and critical cross-examination that helped steer this paper to its final version. Thanks to Anthony Nadler for particularly helpful feedback on an early draft of this study.
This study was funded by the Open Society Foundations U.S. Programs. Media Cloud has received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Open Society Foundations.
We've worked for free for 21 years. Our debunking of the Times' Uranium One report appeared one day after it first appeared, not more than two years later.
(Two days before the report appeared, we offered these ruminations concerning the very strange business deal from which the report resulted. Such things can be done in real time, though the issues involved won't be discussed by our favorite stars on cable.)
Fergus Falls has had its day in court. The fraudulent report about the town has been identified, acknowledged, discussed.
The larger frauds under which we all live continue along under stifling codes of silence. Simply put, you aren't allowed to know many things. This is roughly the arrangement Chomsky describes as "manufactured consent."
One final point. The fraudulent Der Spiegel report worked from a much-loved novelistic framework. It was all about the racism of Those People, the ones in the other tribe.
Our contemporary liberal world runs on that fuel. Our liberal world runs on tribal loathing, on the loathing of The Others which has always routinely prevailed.
Are we humans really the rational animal? This depressing New York Times report about the inner workings of the Women's March provides a depressing answer to that question.
We humans just aren't all that sharp. In particular, we have a lot of trouble with the logical complexities of "some" versus "all."
This doesn't mean that anyone's evil. It means we're prone to self-defeat through painful error, even Over Here within our progressive tents.
It means we aren't all that sharp. Except when we're seeing ourselves from afar, the truth is, we never have been.
Charles Lane goes to Fergus Falls: Charles Lane was editor of The New Republic during the Stephen Glass era.
Earlier this week, he discussed the Fergus Falls case in the Washington Post. He also discussed the way we liberals love to drop our bombs.
Tomorrow: What Michael Beschloss (oddly) said to applause