Among all the things that 2016 will be remembered for, the rise and rise of ‘fake news’ will be one of the top issues. Not only have these fictitious news articles jumped out of the realm of obvious satire and into the ‘news pool’, but they’ve even been credited for having influenced the historic US presidential elections this year, with an outcome that many still can’t believe.
Now, it’s difficult to make out what’s true and what’s not. But this one story that has touched the hearts of many across the world comes with a much more basic issue – that of believing the person who is the story-teller. Over the past week, the story of a terminally ill five-year-old boy dying in the arms of a man dressed as Santa Claus has become viral. It was first reported by Knoxville News-Sentinel on December 12, and subsequently picked up by news sites across the world, including indianexpress.com.
Eric Schmitt-Matzen, who looks every bit like Santa with his white curled moustache and beard, spoke of a heart-wrenching experience when he suddenly got a call from a nurse from a local hospital in Knoxville city. He was told that a very sick child wanted to see Santa. “He was more concerned about missing Christmas, than dying,” Schmitt-Matzen told NBC affiliate WBIR channel.
After he arrived at the hospital room within 15 minutes, Schmitt-Matzen asked the boy, “What’s this I hear you’re going to be missing Christmas this year?” That’s when the boy told him he heard he was going to die. “Well, you’re not going to miss Christmas, the elves already had your present, we knew you wanted this for a long time,” he said he told the boy, handing him a gift that had already been given to him.
Schmitt-Matzen then told the kid, “When you get up those pearly gates, you just tell them you’re Santa’s No. 1 elf.” To which the child apparently responded, “I am?” perking up. “You sure are, I’m sure they’ll let you right in,” the 60-year-old said.
The boy then gave him a tight hug, and “he just looked at me and said, Santa, can you help me?” “And that’s when he passed,” Schmitt-Matzen told Knoxville News Sentinel in an interview, adding that after the boy died in his arms, he left the hospital as fast as he could.
Following the publishing of the story, Schmitt-Matzen had been interviewed by others, and he recounted the same story without giving any details on the boy or the family. News-Sentinel itself conducted an additional investigation to indpendently verify Schmitt-Matzen’s account, but came back empty-handed. Though the background details of Schmitt-Matzen check out, the story of the boy and his gift does not. Several local hospitals were contacted for the story, but none could confirm it.
On December 14, News-Sentinel editor Jack McElroy and Sam Venable (the original author of the story) published a piece that says, “has done additional investigation in an attempt to independently verify Schmitt-Matzen’s account. This has proven unsuccessful. Although facts about his background have checked out, his story of bringing a gift to a dying child remains unverified. The News Sentinel cannot establish that Schmitt-Matzen’s account is inaccurate, but more importantly, ongoing reporting cannot establish that it is accurate”.
“Therefore, because the story does not meet the newspaper’s standards of verification, we are no longer standing by the veracity of Schmitt-Matzen’s account.”
Other news organisations have done the same with the same result. Though, in a follow-up interview with The Washington Post, Schmitt-Matzen, a mechanical engineer by day, was unfazed by the scepticism. “If some people want to call me a liar…I can handle that better than I can handle a child in my arms dying,” he said. “It’s sticks and stones.”