Minnesota Daily Report: A “Feat of Investigative Journalism”

The academic transcript: forged.  The English accent: faked.  A majority of stories from his past: fabricated, or at least greatly exaggerated.  The candidate’s campaign for city council: over.

As recently as a few weeks ago, Charles Carlson, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, faced few hurdles in his race for a Minneapolis city council seat, besides an incumbent opponent.  Then he met Briana Bierschbach.  The University of Minnesota junior, a journalism junkie and closet “Star Wars” fan, covers city government for the Minnesota Daily.  She first wrote a basic profile on Carlson.  Then some online rumblings started.  Bierschbach became curious,  and started digging, eventually breaking open a bevy of lies that would be hilarious if they did not emanate from an individual so sadly troubled.

Her report carried a simple headline (“Student to drop from City Council race, lied about past“), but has rightfully received grander billing as a true “feat of investigative journalism.”  (Daily staff reporter Tiffany Smith also deserves a huge shout-out for her contributions to the story.)

Minnesota Daily reporter Briana Bierschbach

Minnesota Daily reporter Briana Bierschbach

For her investigative reporting amazingness, Bierschbach earns a well-deserved place in the CMM Student Journalist Spotlight.  Her take on all-things-journalism and her recent oh-so-strange reporting assignment is below:

Write a six-word memoir of your Daily reporting experience so far.

Dead ends and discoveries.  Investigative journalism.

How did you first stumble upon the Carlson story?

My beat at the Minnesota Daily is city government, so when I heard that a student was running for the city council seat that represents much of the University of Minnesota, I thought it would make an interesting story. The story focused on Carlson’s reasons for running, as well as the work of the current councilman Cam Gordon. After the story was published, the online version began receiving comments questioning Carlson’s claims about growing up in England and attending Princeton. I contacted Carlson and asked if we could do a follow-up on the story to clarify questions about his past. At that point, I had no idea what I was getting into.

Describe the moment when his false facade first ‘broke‘.

I asked Carlson to provide me transcripts to several of the schools he claimed to have attended, including Princeton University and the Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. The transcript he gave me from Princeton looked a little fishy, so I contacted Princeton’s Office of Registrar and faxed them the transcript. Later in the day they called me back and told me the transcript was, “Fraud with a capital ‘F.'” At that moment, everything Carlson told me and any other reporter was instantly drawn into question, and it became my mission to set the record straight.

This story has amazing and also just-plain *strange* written all over it.  Is there a particular moment that stands out during your reporting?

I made a lot of phone calls to a lot of people who had no idea what I was talking about. I called one woman and asked if she was a relative of Charles Carlson, and she was almost certain she had a distant cousin with the same name. I spent the next half hour while she passed the phone around her home to family members who tried to answer my questions. When it was all said and done we came to the conclusion that there was no relation, but those calls had to be made.

What part of your reporting are you most proud about, and why?

In the end, I am glad that I was able to sit down with Carlson and have a conversation that not only set the record straight but asked the question: why? Why did he make all of these extraordinary claims? From public documents and conversations, I knew there was a history of mental health issues, and I think it was extremely important to include in the story.

To all the campus media haters out there: Why does the Daily matter?

College publications are serious about doing quality journalism. There’s not a day that goes by where I am not totally in awe of the dedication and hard work done by my peers. I don’t expect there ever will be.

You wake up in ten years. Where are you and what are you doing?

Hopefully writing. It’s a scary time to be pursuing a career in journalism, but I truly hope I have a future in this amazing profession. As far as where I would be, anywhere I suppose, but I do have lofty ambitions to be some sort of “world traveler.” I would love to live in Asia for awhile.

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  1. […] Another interesting tidbit would be further insight into the “three current House Republicans who proffered criticisms of Emmer’s style.” For instance, while they requested anonymity, maybe ask them who they supported during the endorsement process.  Could that possibly color their comments? Of course, however, Bierschbach’s hit-piece writing skills prefers the world of the ambiguous.  Maybe, she is hoping that this will be another “feat of investigative journalism” like her days writing for that unbiased “news&#…. […]