It’s been a rough couple of months at the North Pole.
First there was another battle in the ongoing fake “war on Christmas,” as outraged Starbucks patrons complained that the company’s limited edition holiday cup wasn’t sufficiently yuletide-y.
Then came the brouhaha at the Mall of America, which set off a firestorm by hiring its first African-American Santa.
Enter Eric Schmitt-Matzen. A white-bearded, suspenders-clad Santa-for-hire with a jolly Kris-Kringle chuckle described as “straight out of Central Casting,” Schmitt-Matzen was just the balm for Christmas’s ragged soul. (His ringtone is “Jingle Bells,” for God’s sake.) On Sunday, columnist Sam Venable of the Knoxville News Sentinel wrote a piece about Schmitt-Matzen’s recent experience of being summoned to the bedside of a dying 5-year-old who had asked to see Santa.
As Venable describes the scene:
‘They say I’m gonna die,’ he told me. ‘How can I tell when I get to where I’m going?’
I said, ‘Can you do me a big favor?’
He said, ‘Sure!’
When you get there, you tell ’em you’re Santa’s Number One elf, and I know they’ll let you in.
He said, ‘They will?’
I said, ‘Sure!’
He kinda sat up and gave me a big hug and asked one more question: ‘Santa, can you help me?’
I wrapped my arms around him. Before I could say anything, he died right there. I let him stay, just kept hugging and holding on to him.
Everyone outside the room realized what happened. His mother ran in. She was screaming, ‘No, no, not yet!’ I handed her son back and left as fast as I could.
Is it any wonder the story went viral in about three seconds? News outlets including ABC, NBC, Fox, the BBC, USA Today, The Washington Post, People, and even The Times of India all repeated Venable’s tear-jerking tale of Santa fulfilling a dying boy’s Christmas wish.
The only problem is that it may not have actually happened.
The story, unfortunately, bears far too many signs of being yet another in a long list of unverifiable virtual urban legends. The child and hospital are never named, which makes it feel more like a fable than a real piece of reportage. The boy, too weak to rip paper off a present, can suddenly sit up and give Santa a bear hug. The parents of a child quite literally at death’s door are willing to leave his bedside. And the dialogue seems to be taken straight out of a Hallmark movie.
The nay-sayers are now out sniffing in force, leading the News Sentinel to say that it is “no longer standing by the veracity of Schmitt-Matzen’s account.” Poor Santa is, predictably hiding behind a convenient shield of “privacy.”
“I feel like I have been used and then hung out to dry,” he told Time magazine. “I emphasized from the very beginning that I intended to keep my word and not disclose any information that could lead to the folks’ identity.”
The problem with that assertion, however, is that in today’s media climate, the “folks’ identity” would almost undoubtedly become apparent. Even if, for some reason, the grieving family behind this inspirational Christmas tale wanted to remain anonymous, it’s virtually impossible that some real-world marker that such an event had happened — an obituary, for example — wouldn’t have been unearthed by now. No local hospitals contacted by The Washington Post have said that a child died in this manner on their premises. Surely someone, somewhere — from this kid’s church/school/soccer/Boy Scouts/neighborhood — would have let slip on social media that, yes, they know the actual child this happened to, right? Not a single person visiting someone else at the hospital that day got wind of the extraordinary scene that had just played out down the hall? Crickets.
Disproving a made-up story is an imperfect enterprise at best. It ultimately becomes about a preponderance of a lack of evidence. How do you really prove that the Easter Bunny and tooth fairy aren’t real? How could I prove that I didn’t spend last Thanksgiving on Mars? Or that, say, Hillary Clinton and John Podesta aren’t running a child sex ring out of a pizza place?
That so many media outlets uncritically disseminated this Christmas fable as an actual news story would be troubling at any time, but at this particular moment in America, it’s absolutely unacceptable.
During the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, so-called “fake news” had an undeniable and devastating effect. But the term “fake news” should really be reserved for a very specific phenomenon: that of making up stories out of whole cloth for clicks and profit. Fake news is written by made-up people with no journalistic credentials and runs on sites like “abcnews.com.co” specifically designed to make you think they’re something they’re not. Fake news is earning James Horner $10,000 a month. Fake news is what comes out of these mills in in Macedonia.
But the term “fake news” is being co-opted as part of a comprehensive attempt to undermine the authority of the press. Led in no small part by our president-elect and his circle, people are dismissing as “fake news” any story they simply don’t like or agree with. It leads people to wonder just whom they can trust, creating a vacuum all too ripe for an autocrat to exploit. And if you don’t know why that’s such a concern, take it from Russian journalist Masha Gessen and her experience covering Vladimir Putin. Now more than ever, the American media needs to step up its game and speak with authority. Now more than ever, we can’t afford to make mistakes like Sam Venable did. There’s too much at stake.
Two years ago, concerned about the way in which urban legends were eroding journalistic standards, I set out to debunk the story of a young woman known only as “Amanda,” whose agonizing death by brain tumor was supposedly chronicled in her Twitter feed and then turned into a viral YouTube video. Like Schmitt-Matzen’s story, many mainstream media outlets ate up Amanda’s tale of woe without ever stopping to do even the most cursory reporting: What was her last name? Where did she work? What hospital was she in?
At the end of that piece, I wrote:
Is the world palpably different if a million people watch a sad YouTube video about a dying woman’s Twitter feed and mistakenly think it’s real? Of course not. But unreliable information goes viral regularly, because so few people pay attention to the provenance of the things they ‘like’ and ‘share’ at lightning speed on social media. At what point in the lifespan of these tall tales that pass as ‘news’ are we allowed to care about their veracity? At what point does the accumulation of all these insignificant falsehoods we now traffic in become, well, significant?
I think the answer to that question is emphatically “now.” Perhaps now more than ever before in our nation’s history, we need journalists to be asking hard, uncomfortable questions. Yes, even to a sweet Santa who cradled a dying boy as he drew his last breath.
As the old journalism joke goes, if your mother says she loves you, check it out.