As It Happens

'I hate being the Grinch': Reporter says story of boy who died in Santa's arms doesn't add up

The viral story of a little boy who died in Santa's arms just isn't stacking up. Now, the paper who first published the story admits they can't verify the facts. Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi says he had doubts from the get go.
Eric Schmitt-Matzen is a professional Santa. He made headlines around the world after he claimed that a terminally-ill child died in his arms. (Eric Schmitt-Matzen/Facebook)

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That viral story that tugged at your holiday heartstrings may be a hoax.

With headlines like, "'I cried all the way home': Terminally ill 5-year-old dies in Santa's arms," the story was the perfect mix of kindness and humanity in the midst of tragedy. It was also about Santa.

The original story tells the tale of a dying child who was scared he would miss Christmas. A local Santa Claus went to the child's bedside, and there, like the headline says, the child died in Santa's arms.

Or, maybe not.

There's a famous old saying, rather cynical but true in the journalism world that, 'If your mother says she loves you, check it out.'- Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi

The Knoxville News Sentinel, the paper that originally published the story about the boy, said Wednesday it could not verify their columnist's account of the professional Santa Claus.

According to Paul Farhi, a reporter at the Washington Post, the story serves as "a comment about the world we live in now in terms of the media." Farhi spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about why he was sceptical about the story from the start.

Carol Off: Paul, what were your first impressions when you read this story about the little boy who died in Santa's arms?

Paul Farhi: I didn't really believe it. I think you read a story like that and you say to yourself there's a few elements that don't add up. Maybe you say that if you're a journalist. Maybe, if you're not, it's heartwarming about a sad situation. But as a journalist you can see through the story very quickly.
Paul Farhi is a reporter with The Washington Post. (The Washington Post)

CO: What were some red flags for you?

PF: Any story that has a single source telling the story is an immediate red flag. So in this case, you had this gentleman, Eric Schmitt-Matzen, describing events that come only from him. We didn't know what hospital he was referring to that he went to. We didn't know the name of the family that allowed him to go into the hospital room. We didn't know the name of the child. We didn't know the name of the nurse. None of those details, which would allow anyone to go back and corroborate or verify his story. When those are missing you say, "Hmm…this is based on one person's account and one person's account only."
CO: But there are so many details in that one person's account. I mean, if Eric Schmitt-Matzen made this up it's an incredibly vivid story — is it not?

PF: It is a vivid story and I want to specify that we don't know if the story really is true or untrue. The only thing that we can truly say is that we can't corroborate or verify this and this is something that journalists try to do all the time, which is really what journalism is all about. It's about telling you things that we have found to be true through independent investigation. In this case, you couldn't do the independent investigation. You had to take his word for it. There's a famous old saying, rather cynical but true in the journalism world that, "If your mother says she loves you, check it out."
Eric Schmitt-Matzen is a professional Santa. (Eric Schmitt-Matzen/Facebook)

CO: Did you contact Santa?

PF: Yes, we did. We had two conversations with him. The first one was about the story itself. The story he told us was the one that was published in the newspaper, which is that he, as a professional Santa for the past six years, received a call one day from a nurse that he knew who worked in an intensive care unit.

She told him that there was a little boy who was in very serious health and could he come and comfort that boy. Of course, he immediately dropped everything, went over to this hospital, and found this boy. The family gave him a toy to give to the child. The family was quite distraught. He asked the family to leave. He then presented the present to the child and had a conversation with the child, at the end of which, the child closed his eyes and died. That was the story the newspaper published and that more or less is the one that the world knew because that's the story he told.
"I hate being the Grinch in this case but there are so many elements here that we can't pin down that it makes you scratch your head."- Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi

CO: And he's no longer speaking to the media, nor is the newspaper that originally did the story, the Knoxville News Sentinel. But a local television station tried to verify it and said they did. They had two other sources, Santa's wife and also a friend. Does that help answer your questions?

PF: No it doesn't really help answer anything about this. It's not really corroboration when you tell someone a story and you talk to that second person and they say, "Yes, he told me that story." I'd like to hear independent verification [from] someone who he didn't tell the story to — someone who was actually involved in this event. I hate being the Grinch in this case but there are so many elements here that we can't pin down that it makes you scratch your head and wonder about whether any of it really, truly did occur.

CO: I guess on some level, the other player in this is the public, the readers, the viewers who want to believe the story is true, and that there is, perhaps, a disposition that if the story has touched people and affected them, then the story is true, even if it didn't happen.

PF: I think that's right, and I think that's why journalists were so willing to pass the story on. Because there are stories, there are facts, and those are kind of boring. And there's something called myth, which we all need. But we're not myth-makers, we're journalists, we're in the boring world of facts, and sorting out what's true and what's not true, and our job is to tell people those things, not create fantasies or comforting stories that go beyond the realm of fact. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Paul Farhi.