On Sunday, the New York Times picked up an op-ed in USA-Today and published an interesting article about the inaccuracies and maliciously un-edited nature of the Wikipedia, our premier open-source encyclopedia. The article, Snared in the Web of a Wikipedia Liar recounts with a little glee and absolutely no sense of irony how:
ACCORDING to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, John Seigenthaler Sr. is 78 years old and the former editor of The Tennessean in Nashville. But is that information, or anything else in Mr. Seigenthaler’s biography, true?
The question arises because Mr. Seigenthaler recently read about himself on Wikipedia and was shocked to learn that he “was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John and his brother Bobby.”
“Nothing was ever proven,” the biography added.
Mr. Seigenthaler discovered that the false information had been on the site for several months and that an unknown number of people had read it, and possibly posted it on or linked it to other sites.
This is another case where technology turns a relatively everyday event into a harbinger of technological doom. I’ll be the first to admit that technologies bring unintended, and often catastrophic, consequences. But this is an example of how new technologies that are no worse than old technologies managed to get blamed for crimes that, in the old ways of doing things, were just business as usual.
Worse things happen every day in the book reviews posted anonymously on Amazon (I should know). Worse still happen in the NYT Review of Books, considering the far greater damage to writers’ careers of a bad review in the NYT magazine. And of course, the irony absent this NYT report on the Wikipedia makes it seem that such a travesty of truth could never happen to the Times news organization itself (see the Wiki for Jayson Blair and Judith Miller).
As the Times reports, “Mr. Seigenthaler discovered that the false information had been on the site for several months and that an unknown number of people had read it, and possibly posted it on or linked it to other sites.” Seriously, how many people do you think saw it, or possibly posted it on their sites? Now compare this number to how many people read Judith Miller’s reports on the Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction? Here a bit from the Wiki on Miller:
On May 26, 2004, a week after the U.S. government apparently severed ties with Ahmed Chalabi, a Times editorial acknowledged that some of that newspaper’s coverage in the run-up to the war had relied too heavily on Chalabi and other Iraqi exiles bent on regime change. It also regretted that “information that was controversial [was] allowed to stand unchallenged.” While the editorial rejected “blame on individual reporters,” others noted that ten of the twelve flawed stories discussed had been written or co-written by Miller.
From the glass house they live in, the NYT editorial staff should be much more careful about throwing stones at online reference material.
Personally, I happen to think the Wikipedia is one of the better things since sliced bread, as it is an incredibly useful 1st (but not last) reference tool. Where else could you get several pages of text on Lego’s, along with links to 12 other Wiki entries and 40 or so external links? Do you think Britannica pays as much attention? It only cares about the founder or Lego as part of an article on toys–though that is open only to paying members. How about M’Soft’s Encarta? It only sends me to a dictionary definition and another generic article on toys (not to mention a pop-up ad the size of my screen). And, of coruse, the great material on Jayson Blair and Judith Miller…
And, as a footnote, I find it nice that Wikipedia even includes this last bit of history on Seigenthaler:
Between May and September 2005, the Wikipedia article on Seigenthaler contained a number of inaccurate statements, including allegations he may have been “directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby,” assertions he considered “character assassination.” The statements, added by an anonymous editor and since removed, prompted Seigenthaler to write an Op-Ed in USA Today on November 29, in which he stated that “…Wikipedia is a flawed and irresponsible research tool…[f]or four months, Wikipedia depicted me as a suspected assassin.” Seigenthaler said that he had tried to determine the identity of the anonymous editor but had been unable to do so. Seigenthaler’s article prompted a number of commentators to write about the issue and Wikipedia and the internet in general, and on December 5, Seigenthaler appeared on CNN with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.