Tennessee Santa defends himself while questions grow about veracity of dead child story
Eric Schmitt-Matzen, the man behind the viral story of a Santa granting a final wish to terminally ill boy who apparently died in the man’s arms, is standing behind his claims, despite questions about several facts in the story that have gone unanswered.
Speaking with NBC affiliate WBIR 10News, the 60-year-old said every bit of the story of a child dying in his arms is true.
On Sunday, the Knoxville News Sentinel published the story of Schmitt-Matzen’s encounter with the dying child after the man said he received a phone call in November from a nurse at a local hospital.
Schmitt-Matzen’s story went viral after major news outlets, including Global News, reported his heart-wrenching encounter.
However, on Wednesday, the Knoxville News Sentinel published an editor’s note admitting its reporters couldn’t “independently verify Schmitt-Matzen’s account” and as a result the newspaper was “no longer standing by the veracity of Schmitt-Matzen’s account.”
Schmitt-Matzen’s wife, Sharon, stood by her husband’s tale during Wednesday’s interview with the NBC News affiliate.
“This is something that weighed so heavy on him that he passed up the chance to be with family, to be with his grandsons that love him dearly,” Sharon said.
Sharon told the news station her husband’s encounter with the child happened in mid-October, not in November as previously reported.
Citing privacy and respect for the family, Schmitt-Matzen refused to disclose any further details of the encounter, including the name of the hospital, or the name of the nurse, child, or parents.
However, WBIR 10News said their reporters had “independently verified several critical details of this story, but has agreed not to publish those for the sake of privacy. Schmitt-Matzen maintains his desire to protect all names involved.”
The news station refused to disclose any further details – including who they spoke to or what facts were confirmed – when asked by Global News.
NBC Newschannel, which is affiliated with Global News, says they are standing by the story based on the reputation of the station and its news director.
“If I talk now, Santa folded. And I ain’t doing it,” Schmitt-Matzen told WBIR 10News. “I’m not doing it.”
So, why did the story spread like wildfire?
Professor and chair of the School of Journalism at Ryerson University, Janice Neil, says the timing of the story could have played a part in the worldwide attention.
“It’s fascinating … If [the story] came out in early November … it may not have got all the attention,” Neil told Global News. “A story about Christmas in November or January is not going to land the same way it does in early December.”
The professor also noted that the story came at a time when people may be wanting a “feel-good” story.
“I think a lot of people are looking for feel-good stories … 2016 everybody feels … it is such a terrible year,” Neil said. “It feels like a terrible year so it’s a feel-good story. It reinforces the myth of Santa Claus.”
Neil noted that “people are prepared to believe anything” and the recent emergence of fake news, she said, is not surprising.
“Incredible things in the world are happening, and they are true” Neil explained. “So, it is difficult to sort out. You put up your normal kind of radar, you know is this possible. A reality TV star has become president of the United States, that simply would have been out of our frame of reference.
“Women in their late fifties are giving birth to children. Well, that would have the stuff of the National Inquirer fake story 20 years ago,” Neil said.
With regards to Schmitt-Matzen’s story, the professor said more context around the sick child would have added to some of the credibility behind the newspaper’s column.
“I’m going to put my trust in the newspaper that is clearly not backing the columnist,” Neil said. “News organizations don’t stand back from their stories easily. They don’t collapse in the face of questioning, carefully. That is the most important part of journalism.
“I understand that the newspaper retracted the story so they decided it did not satisfy their degree of verification,” Neil said. “I’m mean, the implication to me is that people were not necessarily telling the truth and when you go to your sources, when you go to sources and they can’t verify, it doesn’t matter what the relationship is to the person.”
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