Paul Jacob

You can't step into the same Wikipedia twice.

That's what Heraclitus said about rivers. I bring this up to put the recent Wikipedia scandal in perspective. Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, is always changing.

Entries are being created, added to, subtracted from, corrected, and sometimes deleted with a frequency that would shock the editors of the world's most respected general-interest encyclopedia, the Britannica.

The Web-only encyclopedia, which I often consult and sometimes link to, is a marvel of Internet cooperation. Thousands of contributors freely give their time to the project, writing and editing and researching. Many of these people are experts in their fields. Others, like the bulk of the contributors to great 19th century projects such as the Oxford English Dictionary, are mere talented amateurs. Mere, indeed!

Unfortunately, a few contributors are saboteurs, libellers, and ill-meaning pranksters, creating havoc with false entries, mean-spirited lies, and low-brow japes.

It's easier for bad entries to "happen" to a good encyclopedia like Wikipedia than to other encyclopedias because it's so easy to add things to Wikipedia. Until a few weeks ago, even anonymous contributors could write and edit the wiki. Even now it takes just minutes to sign up as a contributor and start your career as an unpaid encyclopedist.

And though other contributors can edit out what you put up, this is not always as fast as the word "wiki" suggests (wiki means "quick" or "hasten" in Hawaiian).

Take the recent case of sometime journalist John Seigenthaler, Sr. For 132 days a biography of him appeared on Wikipedia that was riddled with lies. It was true that he had been an administrative assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960s. But, contrary to what appeared on Wikipedia, it was not the case that

  1. he was "for a brief time" thought to be directly involved in the assassinations of both John and Bobby Kennedy;
  2. since this was never a live suspicion, the statement "Nothing was ever proven" was a lie, too, in the sense that nothing was ever tried to be proven or falsified;
  3. Seigenthaler did not move to the Soviet Union in 1971 and
  4. did not start "one of the country's largest public relations firms" shortly after returning to the U.S. in 1984.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.