Friday 6 January 2017

FAKE NEWS: A curse in modern society—Part 2)

There are three kinds of people who disseminate false news. Those who tell their stories for personal gain; those who are careless in not taking greater care in determining the true facts of their stories and those whose motives are purely mischievous.

Consider the tender story Eric Schmitt-Matzen who was playing the role of s part-time Santa when he entered a Tennessee hospital and brought a toy to a young terminally ill boy who was dying of cancer. According to his story, the boy was dying while in his arms.

Immediately, the story went viral. The man`s story has been shared and viewed countless times, and even covered by other news outlets around the world. Follow-up interviews and video recordings by local and national television outlets showed a very emotional Schmitt-Matzen retelling the story in virtually the same words he gave to the News Sentinel. Then suspicious eyebrows began forming after it became apparent that something was wrong about this particular Christmas story.

Schmitt-Matzen had not approached the News Sentinel originally with the story. The information came to the newspaper indirectly through a known source, and Schmitt-Matzen was then contacted and asked about the incident. At the time of that initial interview, he said he had promised to protect the identities of the child’s family and the nurse who summoned him to the hospital bedside. In follow-up interviews, he has continued to hold this position and stand by his account.

Since publication, the News Sentinel had done additional investigation in an attempt to independently verify Schmitt-Matzen’s account. This had proven unsuccessful. Although facts about his background have checked out, his story of bringing a gift to a dying child remained unverified. The News Sentinel could not establish that Schmitt-Matzen’s account was inaccurate, but despite that, ongoing reporting could not establish that it is accurate.

Schmitt-Matzen, says that he was asked to visit a 5-year-old boy in the hospital and bring a gift. When he arrived at the hospital 15 minutes later, the boy’s family was there to greet him. The mom handed him a toy to give to the boy.

Schmitt-Matzen insisted that he be left alone with the boy but the family and others could watch through the window. I find that demand extremely odd. What kind of man who plays the role of Santa would deny a mother of a dying child access to his hospital room?  To do this would make in impossible for anyone to verify what was said between this man and the dying child?

He later said, “I sat down on his bed and asked, ‘Say, what’s this I hear about you’re gonna miss Christmas? There’s no way you can miss Christmas! Why, you’re my Number One elf!” The boy seemed surprised. After he opened his present, he asked me a question. He wanted to know where he was going to go when he died. I told him he’d be welcomed at the North Pole, because he was Santa’s number one elf.” unquote

The 60-year-old said, “The boy then sat up to give Saint Nick a hug and asked me, "Santa, can you help me?" He then died in my arms. "When I felt the life go from him, I looked up, tears running down my face, and looked over at the window and that's when mom started screaming,"

The man later told BBC News that he has paid four death bed visits as Father Christmas.

When pressed by the media, this man wouldn’t disclose the name of the hospital the boy died in or the name of the nurse than called him.

Sam Venable a News Sentinel columnist, noted that the story came to him through a known source, (friends of friends) who had initially told him  that " Schmitt-Matzen promised to protect the identities of the child's family and the nurse who summoned him to the hospital bedside. Why would the mother and nurse ask this man to not disclose their names?  Now that there are serious doubts in this man’s story, why hasn’t the mother come to his aid to verify that he was telling the truth about her 5-year-old dying son?

It was the feel-good story of the Christmas season about a feel-bad situation. It was so feel-good, in fact, that it may have been too good to check out the story for its truthfulness. While the truth of his story is important for everyone to read and hear about, my primary concern is how and why the news media jumped all over a tale which had absolutely no corroboration when there should be plenty of it. Because Schmitt-Matzen refused to present some form of proof that the event he described in the hospital room of the dying boy actually occurred, the Knoxville News-Sentinel agreed to publish the story without first getting some verification of tr authenticity of the so-called event.  That is irresponsible journalism on that newspaper’s part. The Knoxville News Sentinel is “no longer standing by the veracity” of the story.  The Knoxville News Sentinel wrongfully presumed that its columnist had already done the necessary fact checking.  OOPs.

The Washington Post also could not corroborate any details of the story, but its reporting also did not disprove what Schmitt-Matzen had told the newspaper in its original story, written by columnist Sam Venable. The columnist should have investigated the story given to him by Schmitt-Matzen before he put it in his column. Many years ago I was a syndicated columnist for a national newspaper and I made damn sure that my articles were valid before I submitted them to the newspaper.

News Sentinel editor Jack McElroy  said it had done additional investigation in an attempt to independently verify Schmitt-Matzen's account. This had 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 said, “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, We cannot establish that Schmitt-Matzen's account is inaccurate, but more importantly, ongoing reporting cannot establish that it is accurate.”

Sam Venable, a veteran writer who wrote the story based on an interview with Schmitt-Matzen, did not return multiple requests for comment. Obviously he is embarrassed for his blunder. Anything he could add to his story would be futile in pulling him out of the quagmire he put himself in.

The newspaper's first story was republished by USA Today and picked up by multiple news outlets on December 13th, including CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and Washington Post, none of which raised doubts about it. Schmitt-Matzen said he also received inquiries from news outlets around the world which he was more than happy to tell his story to them also.

Schmitt-Matzen remained emotional about the encounter that he said took place last month, saying in the Post interview that he most vividly remember the child's pleading eyes. “You know, the little guys, they have a hard time fathoming death. But they know Christmas. They know it's a lot of fun. He was more upset about missing Christmas than he was about dying. The whole concept of dying just doesn't sink in, you know. And maybe that's a good thing. All I could do was make him smile, make him happy, as best as I could. All he knew was that he was hurting." unquote

Hospitals near Schmitt-Matzen's home and workplace in Jacksboro, in suburban Knoxville, said they had no record of the events described in the News Sentinel's column and accompanying videos.

"We know for certain that it did not happen at our hospital," said Erica Estep, public-relations manager at East Tennessee Children's Hospital. She said the hospital checked its mortality data for the entirety of 2016 and had no records of a 5-year-old child dying under any circumstances.”

Jerry Askew, a spokesman for Tennova Healthcare, a network of local hospitals, replied to an inquiry by saying: "If you're calling about the Santa story, I'm sorry, but it didn't happen at our hospitals. We've received calls from all over the world, but Santa didn't happen here."

Schmitt-Matzen, a mechanical engineer who heads his own manufacturing company, was unfazed by skepticism about his tale. "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.” Well, the stories about this man won’t break his bones but they will surely shed his credibility.

Was Schmitt-Matzen fake news story created in the mind of this disreputable man for personal gain? The answer to that question is similar to the question, “Is the pope a Catholic?”

A big lie (German: große Lüge) was a propaganda technique used by Adolf Hitler. The expression was coined by Adolf Hitler, when he dictated his 1925 book Mein Kampf (My Struggle) to his friend, Rudolph Hess  about “the use of a lie so colossal that no one would believe that someone could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously." unquote

Obviously, he hadn’t meant Schmitt-Matzen. If he had, he would have conceded that this phony Santa would have made Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister appearances before the throngs coming across as a child.

Fake news is due primarily to the serious loss of trust in established institutions such as the news media. Far too many of those in that media have abandoned traditional ways of arriving at the truth such as thoroughly investigating the sources and their stories. 

Steps are necessary to weed out fake news and hoaxes, addressing the growing controversy over its role in the spread of misinformation on the radio, television and the Internet that frighten us or alternatively, tug at our heart strings. 

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