FERGUS FALLS, Minn. — 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.
For more than a year, exasperated Fergus Falls residents fumed to one another about what happened but generally avoided drawing outside attention to their unflattering portrayal. It all might have faded into history, except Mr. Relotius was outed this month by his own publication as a serial fraudster who invented sources, made up quotes and spent years engaging in broad journalistic deception.
When he 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.
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.
“I just think of the false impression it gave to the people of Germany,” said Mary Lou Bates, 85, as she drank coffee with a friend Wednesday at the Viking Cafe, one of the many places in town that Mr. Relotius described inaccurately in his March 2017 story.
But Ms. Bates, who suggested that bias against Mr. Trump may have fueled the article, said she was not one to hold a grudge. “If the story is retracted, and the true story comes out,” she said, “you can forgive. I’m one for forgiveness.”
She’s not alone. As upset as Fergus Falls residents were with their treatment — upset enough to compile a damning point-by-point rebuttal of Mr. Relotius’s story — many of them have also been willing to accept apologies, set the record straight and forge ahead, almost sanguine about the whole ordeal. Another Der Spiegel reporter, who visited Minnesota in recent days to chronicle Mr. Relotius’s missteps, suggested that Fergus Falls might be “the most forgiving city in the Western Hemisphere.”
“We’re taking the high road,” Mayor Ben Schierer said in an interview, in which he praised his city’s arts, parks 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.
“It’s not Mayberry, but there’s a lot of opportunity,” said Mr. Schierer, who owns a pizza restaurant and brewery where Mr. Relotius would write when he was in town. “There’s optimism.”
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.
Because the article was published only in German, its readership in Minnesota was limited. And at first, some in Fergus Falls said there was a desire to give Mr. Relotius the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they had read a faulty translation. Or maybe the reporter made a few honest mistakes.
Civic leaders eventually commissioned a professional translation, the text of which circulated around town in a shared online document. 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 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.
As most residents quietly moved on, Ms. Anderson, along with a friend, continued work on a detailed fact check of the article, which they published last week after Mr. Relotius was outed by his employer. Their title: “Der Spiegel journalist messed with the wrong small town.”
“There’s really nothing like this feeling — knowing that people in another country have read about the place I call home and are shaking their heads over their coffee in disgust,” Ms. Anderson wrote in her post.
Mr. Relotius, who visited around the time of Mr. Trump’s inauguration, had been fixated on voters’ support for the new president. Indeed, about 64 percent of voters in Otter Tail County, of which Fergus Falls is the county seat, chose Mr. Trump in 2016, though Hillary Clinton narrowly won Minnesota.
The election results speak for themselves, but a series of interviews this week with Fergus Falls residents revealed political nuance — liberals, conservatives, people who politely said it was no one’s business.
“It’s not an eyes-closed, all-for-Trump type of community,” said Ward Uggerud, 69, a retired electrical engineer, who like many people declined to say whether he voted for the president. “It’s an all-for-the-community place. Everybody’s got to do their part.”
Unlike other American counties that voted for Mr. Trump, there was not a wild political swing in Fergus Falls, making it a strange place for Mr. Relotius to choose to profile. Otter Tail County had also supported Mitt Romney and John McCain. And well-trod story lines about factory closures and population decline, often cited in accounts of Mr. Trump’s success, did not apply in Fergus Falls, where the downtown is bustling and the population is steady. (A Target store closed recently, despite community efforts to save it, but that was after Mr. Relotius left town.)
All that left residents wondering: Why did Mr. Relotius write what he did? And since he wasn’t going to tell the truth, why did he even bother coming?
“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.”