People magazine has taken its picture-book approach to storytelling to a make-believe extreme, according to a group of Baltimore businessmen, who said a mislabeled, posed picture using a model amounts to a "cartoon" that demeans their business.

In the June 3 issue, People depicted 23-year-old Eric Becker, one of five developers of Blue Cross' new LifeCard -- a laser-etched credit card look-alike that holds up to 800 pages of personal medical history -- as a wild-eyed man, his head bandaged against an apparent bullet wound, flashing the card as he rides a hospital bed down a corridor.

Trouble is, Becker said yesterday, the man in the picture is not him but a paid model. And he said the comical illustration of their product is one he and his partners rejected when People free-lance photographer Robert Sherbow proposed the pose last month because they felt it would strip the LifeCard of dignity.

"It's not silly -- the project is exciting, it's fun, but it's something we take very seriously. It can save a lot of lives," Becker said in a telephone interview yesterday.

In an edition available yesterday, the Baltimore Business Journal reported that Becker is considering filing a libel suit against People. Becker confirmed that he is considering a lawsuit because People refused his request to run a correct photograph of him and "heavily edited" a letter he wrote to the editor.

People's Washington bureau chief Garry Clifford said the issue that will hit the newsstands Monday is running Becker's letter and an editorial note saying, "We regret the error" of identifying the model as Becker. She said she is "unaware" of any editing done on Becker's letter.

"My understanding of it was the pictures of whoever this guy was were not very good, not very exciting. We are a photo magazine. Our photo editor suggested one way to dramatize it was to hire a model. Someone just arbitrarily changed the caption," Clifford said yesterday. "I absolve our reporter and photographer of the blame. Someone upstairs mislabeled the caption."

But Becker and his 19-year-old brother Douglas, who came up with the LifeCard concept and deferred beginning premedical studies at the University of Pennsylvannia to pursue it, said the picture was just one of a series of "abuses" in a story that left out facts that didn't fit with People's theme of whiz kids. For example, People did not mention 58-year-old LifeCard codeveloper Frederik Hansen, despite an hour-long interview with him, because his age didn't fit the theme, the Becker brothers allege.

"They just twisted whatever they could to make this a sensational story. Then they cap it off with this picture that may as well have been a cartoon," Douglas Becker said in a telephone interview yesterday.

Echoing his younger brother's disappointment with the People piece, Eric Becker said, "It's already difficult enough for a young person in business to be taken seriously . . . .

"What my lawyer says is the picture is defamatory because it portrays me, using a model, as not someone to be taken seriously and in a manner that I would not have allowed myself to be photographed," Becker added.

But Washington libel defense attorney Bruce W. Sanford disagrees with the Beckers' attorney. "To say the obvious, it's probably one of the rarest cases I've heard about. It's not just a mistake -- they've taken what may be called a news article and illustrated it with a paid model," Sanford said. "But if there's a libel claim here, it's a tremendously weak one. I don't think People meant to disparage the inventors or their product."