After fake story, Fergus Falls gets its do-over

It’s funny how things work out sometimes. Getting trashed by a reporter for Der Spiegel in a now-discredited profile of a city that — accurately — went big for Donald Trump in 2016, might be the best thing that ever happened to Fergus Falls.

A city of 14,000 (almost) can’t buy the kind of attention that Fergus Falls is getting from being victimized by Claas Relotius, who made up quotes and people for his story. Now, Der Spiegel has sent a reporter to the city to report more accurately, particularly the part about there being more to the city population than the city’s role in putting the president in office.

And today, the New York Times joins in, parachuting two reporters and a photographer into town to find out what the people at the Viking Cafe think. Yes, there actually is a Viking Cafe.

“I’m one for forgiveness,” Mary Bates, 85, told the inquiring reporters.

Fergus Falls might be “the most forgiving city in the Western Hemisphere,” Der Spiegel’s new reporter said in assessing the city. Fergus Falls, at the very least, inspires exaggeration.

“The election results speak for themselves,” the Times said of the 64 percent of the Otter Tail electorate who voted for Trump in 2016. That’s an odd assessment, given that the Times, as most national news organizations, spent the aftermath of the election dropping into rural America to try to figure out what the heck the people were thinking.

But the results don’t speak for themselves; that’s the mistake Relotius made, assuming that a campaign that appealed to white nationalism, a campaign that stirred up anti-Somali immigrant fears in stops in Maine and Minnesota the weekend before the election, indicated the vote responded to that nationalism.

Maybe it did; maybe it didn’t. Relotius couldn’t find proof so he made up the proof. But that didn’t really answer the original question he was dispatched to answer any more than the subsequent trips to cover his fallout has.

The Times suggested Fergus Falls was going to vote for Trump no matter what he stood for, because he’s Republican and Otter Tail County votes for Republicans.

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?

So we are left to our own devices to figure out what particular appeal Trump held in Otter Tail County, what values Fergus Falls was embracing — or ignoring — in embracing him.

“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 replacement Der Spiegel correspondent who was sent to cover the town’s “true story” as the Times put it.

Cliche. Like stopping at the coffee shop, talking to a few folks, packaging it up, sending it to an editor, and thinking you’ve told a town’s true story, good or bad.

So at the end of all of this, we still don’t know specifically why Fergus Falls loved Donald Trump so much, the answer to which would tell us more about Fergus Falls than a quick cup of coffee in the Viking Cafe.

Communities are complex things in a world that loves its simple explanations.