FERGUS FALLS - In between an interview with "Fox and Friends" and running his hometown pizzeria and brewery, Fergus Falls Mayor Ben Schierer was busy Thursday, Dec. 20.
His phone was already buzzing when he woke up early that morning, so he knew something was up.
"When you're in The New York Times and Star Tribune, you know something is really, really good or really, really bad," he said while making a Thai pizza Thursday evening.
Schierer said German reporter Claas Relotius spent days last February inside Union Pizza and Brewing, which Schierer owns with his wife. He said Relotius would get lunch and write for hours about Fergus Falls.
"He seemed to like the community and people. I couldn't wait to see the article," the mayor said.
But the article turned out to be full of lies.
The 33-year-old reporter has since resigned from the German news magazine Der Spiegel and admitted to making up more than a dozen stories, including the one he wrote on Fergus Falls after President Donald Trump's inauguration, according to Der Spiegel.
CNN has also stripped Relotius of its Journalist of the Year award in the wake of the exposé.
Two Fergus Falls residents wrote an article for the online publication Medium ("Der Spiegel journalist messed with the wrong small town"), listing the lies and characters Relotius made up to depict a community obsessed with Trump.
Despite spending a month in Fergus Falls talking with locals, Relotius' portrayal, titled "Where they pray for Trump on Sundays," was by and large fictional.
"In 7,300 words he really only got our town's population and average annual temperature correct, and a few other basic things, like the names of businesses and public figures, things that a child could figure out in a Google search. The rest is uninhibited fiction (even as sloppy as citing an incorrect figure of citywide 70.4% electoral support for Trump, when the actual number was 62.6%), which begs the question of why Der Spiegel even invested in Relotius' three week trip to the U.S.," wrote Fergus Falls resident Michele Anderson in the Medium article.
Anderson and Jake Krohn, who co-authored the Medium piece, are receiving international praise for their fact-checking and rebuttal article exposing the fraudulent Der Spiegel story.
"When the article first came out, we got to work with some of the easiest facts that were obviously made up," Anderson said.
Relotius described, for example, a sign greeting people at city limits that reads "Mexicans Keep Out."
That sign doesn't exist.
Krohn said when they first began translating the original article from German to English, he thought something was amiss because "there were so many things that were so weird and bizarre."
Mayor Schierer said he's most disappointed with the article portraying Fergus Falls as unwelcoming and the lies Relotius told about City Administrator Andrew Bremseth, who was the main character in the fake article. "Some things are laughable, but then it turns to incredibly offensive," he said.
Der Spiegel wrote that Relotius "committed large-scale journalistic fraud over several years." The publication said he admitted to fabricating at least 14 articles in question.
Regarding the Fergus Falls article, the publication said Relotius "bent and twisted reality in a repugnant and arrogant manner" and "insulted the inhabitants of Fergus Falls in the process. Relotius gave the inhabitants of Fergus Falls made-up biographies to suit his needs, as if he were a puppeteer."
Schierer said Fergus Falls will "take the high road" and use this exposure to tell the real story of his city.
A Washington, D.C., correspondent with Der Spiegel is coming to town for a shot at redemption, Schierer said, and to write a factual story on Fergus Falls.
"There are so many positive things and people," Schierer said of his town. "But unfortunately, that's not the story he wanted to hear."