Did the News Media Fall Too Fast For the Viral Story of Santa and the Dying 5-Year-Old Boy?


screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-1-05-53-pm-650x409You probably heard this week about the heartwarming and tear-jerking story about the Tennessee Santa Claus who cradled a five-year-old boy as he died in his arms just after having received a final Christmas gift. The local Knoxville News Sentinel column which told the tragic tale, and which contained an interview with Eric Schmitt-Matzen (“Santa”) went viral and was picked up by almost every national news organization.

It is easy to understand why the story was so popular. It has Santa, a terminally-ill boy, a final Christmas gift, a dying wish, and an extremely emotional and compelling witness in Schmitt-Matzen who looks like the perfect modern television version of Santa Claus. When I first heard about it, being the father of a four-year-old girl to whom Santa is currently almost everything, I was prepared to be choked up by the whole sad affair.

Instead, I had a very different reaction.

At first, I found myself stunned that the story had gotten such remarkable coverage with an extraordinary lack of details and corroboration. Then, as I delved deeper into how the original column had quickly exploded nationally, I became extremely confused as to how to make sense of it all. Now, I have several questions that should have been asked and answered before this Internet sensation had been given such remarkable news media coverage.

I want to make clear that I am not saying that the story is hoax, or even that it didn’t happen the way that “Santa” says that it did. I am, however, willing to say, perhaps because of the lightning speed with which the story worked its way up the media food chain, that it does possess almost all the markings of a possibly “fake,” or at least partially fake, news item. At the very least, the follow-up reporting here has been extremely poor.

First, let’s take basics of the original story. It began as a column (not a news story) in a rather small newspaper in Knoxville. The first half of the column doesn’t even mention the boy but instead reads like an advertisement for Schmitt-Matzen’s Santa Claus business. Okay fine, so the writer, Sam Venable, buried the lede. That’s weird, but it doesn’t prove anything.

However, the column which is heavy on emotion, is almost completely lacking in facts of any kind. Here are the following key bits of information which are missing from the story and have not, as of this writing, been filled in by any follow up reporting:

  • The date this happened (a subsequent interview with Venable indicates it was “about a month ago,” but he clearly doesn’t know).
  • The name of the nurse who called Schmitt-Matzen urging him to rush to the hospital to see the dying boy.
  • The name of the hospital.
  • The name (even a first name) of the boy.
  • The name of the family.
  • A statement from anyone else who was there (according to Schmitt-Matzen there were many witnesses), or anyone else at all, including his wife who seems to have been out town during a key portion of the story.

Now it is certainly possible that Venable, being a columnist who was never expecting the story to break nationally, decided that none of these facts were important enough to overcome possible privacy concerns. However, there are other aspects about how this all went down which raise even more questions.

There are several parts of both this story, and the way that it became public, which simply don’t make sense. Here are some of them:

  • Isn’t early November in Tennessee a bit early for a dying child to be obsessing about Santa so much that a nurse decides to take it upon herself to rush St. Nick to the hospital? And if Santa was rushing to the hospital on no notice in early November, how is it that the parents had a wrapped Christmas gift ready for Santa to give him?
  • Does it not seem odd that the parents of an imminently terminal five-year old would allow him to be totally alone (as Schmitt-Matzen makes clear happened) with a complete stranger? Also, I’m not a doctor, but it seems odd to me that a boy could be well enough to meet Santa, have a very cogent conversation with him, and express joy over having received a gift, all just seconds before dying (of an undisclosed illness). And where are the medical personnel while this is all happening (none are mentioned by Santa)?
  • Schmitt-Matzen also adds in the very strange detail that as soon as the boy died he immediately rushed out of the hospital, which, while certainly plausible, is consistent with a storyteller who wants there to be an explanation for why no one remembers him being there (it should also be noted that, because he was in such a big hurry to get to the hospital, he was apparently not in full Santa garb, which is also extremely convenient.)
  • How Venable found out about the story also seems strange. As he discusses in a video interview about the story having gone viral, he got wind of this in a whisper-down-the-lane situation which included at least four degrees of separation from Schmitt-Matzen.  In all my years of interviewing people I have NEVER found a story which had more than one degree of separation from its source to be fully credible.
  • The fact that, in this era of instant news, it took several weeks for the story to come to the attention of anyone in the media should inherently raise concerns. This was Knoxville, not a Third-World country. I have never seen a similar story which took that long to get reported where there weren’t significant problems with the narrative. Even more interesting is that Venable talks about how tough it was to get Schmitt-Matzen to talk on the record about his experience, and even suggests that at one point “Santa” almost backed out from doing so.
  • Venable, who seems to have not ever seriously questioned Schmitt-Matzen’s veracity, appears to have been, understandably, blown away by the deep emotion expressed by “Santa.” Whenever a reporter gets hooked into the emotion of a story and leaves their skepticism at the door, there could be issues.
  • The indisputable reality is that the only person who has spoken on the record about this episode is the same guy who makes a living pretending to be someone he’s not, and who will now be able to charge a lot more money for his services.
  • While Schmitt-Matzen has done other media interviews after it all went viral, including with CNN, the Associated Press had this interesting bit of skepticism at the end of their report: “The News-Sentinel report didn’t include details on the boy or the hospital. Schmitt-Matzen didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press.” Also, the fact-checking website Snopes has called the story “unproven,” and could not find a local hospital to verify the claim, which has forced the News-Sentinel to investigate their original story.
  • This is exactly the type of story which the news media would be VERY hesitant to debunk, even if they had suspicions, because the risk of being wrong (you went after Santa, you asshole!!) far outweighs the reward for being right (gee, thanks for ruining Christmas, you asshole!).
  • Both me and a Mediaite editor have searched for every Knoxville obituary (on the Knoxville News Sentinel’s own website) in the key portion of November, and have so far found no sign of anything close to a five-year-old boy dying.

For the record, I have emailed multiple editors at the Knoxville News Sentinel asking to speak to Venable and have not yet received a response.

Again, I’m not saying that this story is a hoax. Maybe it is simply exaggerated due to the long delay between the event and its reporting, and by Schmitt-Matzen really getting deep into his character, while never thinking the story would go much beyond Knoxville. Perhaps the story is completely true and has just been very poorly reported and involves a lot of extremely media shy people.

I’m also not saying that, taken alone, it is a huge scandal if it isn’t 100% true. However, with “fake news” now being rightfully such a hot topic, it would be an important “teaching moment” for how easily the news media can be duped into buying a possibly false narrative, especially when so many emotional hot buttons are pushed at the same time.

As usual, I just want the truth and it feels to me that on this one we might need to know more.

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UPDATE 2:15 PM ET: The Knoxville News Sentinel published a piece stating that they are unable to verify the story or Schmitt-Matzen’s recounting of it.

“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.”

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John Ziegler, who has worked as a pollster, is a nationally-syndicated radio talk show host and documentary filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigManFreud or email him at johnz@mediaite.com

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This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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