Today's Internet age is putting an end to the hardcover encyclopedia business. Why spend fortunes on a massive (albeit attractive) World Book set when what you need is a mouse click away on the Internet? Any student preparing a research paper and searching Google will probably be handed over quickly to the "Wikipedia" online encyclopedia system. What's more -- and here's an offer that presumably can't be beat -- it's free!
At Wikipedia, you won't find a distinguished body of tweedy old professors poring over every paragraph on the Hanseatic League. It's actually on the other end of the credibility spectrum. Wikipedia is an "open-source" encyclopedia, a reference source anyone can create. The danger in this system becomes very obvious, very quickly.
Recently, the comedian and movie star Sinbad had to announce that he was not, in fact, dead of a heart attack at age 50, as his Wikipedia entry claimed. "Somebody vandalized the page," claimed Wikipedia spokeswoman Sandra Ordonez.
Not only can Wikipedia articles be written by anyone with Internet access, others can then edit that material by adding off-setting and consequently off-putting material whose purpose is to create intellectual mischief.
The other day, Bernie Goldberg emailed me, upset. He pointed me to his Wikipedia entry. To read what was written was to conclude that apparently I must hate his guts. But we are friends. He is a man for whom I have profound respect, professional and personal. He knew there was foul play.
Right there on the screen, under the heading "Criticism," it stated that I had attacked him, "claiming that Goldberg merely lifted material he had been producing for years, and only published the book because he had an ax to grind with his former employers and was attempting to make a 'quick buck,' noting that Goldberg never mentioned the alleged liberal bias of the media until it was 'convenient' and 'profitable' for him to do so."
Where did this come from? An accompanying footnote linked to a column I wrote when Goldberg's "100 People Who Are Screwing Up America (And Al Franken is No. 37)" was released in 2005. Among other things, I called it "a wonderful read for anyone not on that list." I'd opened my column by joking that "I hate him" -- because he'd written a set of New York Times best-sellers I wish I'd thought to write first. There you have it.
But the author wasn't guilty of misunderstanding me. Remember how the Wikipedia entry said I charged Goldberg with opportunism, for never mentioning liberal bias until it was "convenient" and "profitable" for him? Neither those sentiments nor those words appeared anywhere in my column footnoted by Wikipedia.
In fact, those words have never been uttered by me. The accusation would be false. Back in 1996, Goldberg used the op-ed pages of The Wall Street Journal publicly to castigate his own network for its one-sided oafish bashing of Steve Forbes. It was anything but "convenient" or "profitable" for him. It ruined his friendship with Dan Rather and put him on a path to the outer fringes of CBS News. Ultimately, it ruined his newscaster career.
My attorney contacted Wikipedia by email demanding the removal of this false entry. No response. So we edited out the offensive material ourselves, after which in writing counsel alerted Wikipedia to the legal action that might befall them should this be repeated. Here's full disclosure, Wikipedia-style: You can see how each article is altered, sometimes hour by hour, in its "History" section. But there is no mention of the attorney's complaints. In the Goldberg article's history, an editor simply now scolds: "Bozell's article is a mock-jealous swipe at Goldberg's opportunism. PLEASE REREAD IT." (Capitals theirs.)
Goldberg and I are not alone. The website Conservapedia.com has a long list of 41 allegations of bias and factual errors at Wikipedia. You can add to that the problem with the credentials of its staff. One of its editors, named only "Essjay" online and described on his user profile "as a tenured professor of religion at a private university with expertise in canon law," was recently exposed as a 24-year-old college kid in Kentucky. He resigned in disgrace -- even though Wikipedia tried to retain him, claiming he'd edited thousands of articles with flair.
The Florida-based Wikimedia Foundation is aware of its Website's reputation. Board member Erik Moller was very frank in a recent essay. One of their 10 things they wanted you to know about Wikipedia is: "We don't want you to trust us. It's in the nature of an ever-changing work like Wikipedia that, while some articles are of the highest quality of scholarship, others are admittedly complete rubbish. We are fully aware of this."
It's enough to make used-car salesmen cringe.