Paul Jacob

His son, John Seigenthaler, Jr., a journalist for NBC News, found this misinformation duplicated on Reference.com and Answers.com.

Now, neither journalist, father nor son, signed up immediately onto Wikipedia to delete the lies. Seigenthaler Sr. publicized the situation, instead, and wrote to the founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, to ask if he could find the author of the libelous note. Wales had to shamefacedly reply in the negative. Though Wikipedia users take pride in the "self-correcting" nature of the enterprise, Seigenthaler noted in a USA Today article that "[f]or four months, Wikipedia depicted me as a suspected assassin before Wales erased it from his website's history [on] Oct. 5. The falsehoods remained on Answers.com and Reference.com for three more weeks."

The revised, current Wikipedia page devoted to Seigenthaler appears, like many Wikipedia articles, exhaustive and more than fair. It includes a heavily annotated section on the controversy itself, running about 300 words. As of this writing (and I'm sure this entry will change over time — though perhaps with more than a little attention and editorial oversight than your average Wikipedia entry) the article ends with the most recent news, that a Nashville man had confessed to the original prank, and had resigned from his job because of this. Seigenthaler had actually urged the man's boss not to accept the man's resignation. A vindicated Seigenthaler did not start any legal proceedings, and apparently saw no need to twist the knife into the culprit.

The controversy marks a major event in the history of Wikipedia. The wiki's protocols were tightened up to disallow anonymous users from posting articles. Good move. It also shows that the "automatic" self-correction method of this free Web service was never really automatic. That's just a metaphor. It depends on people with good intentions and no small amount of integrity, as well as the time and attention to follow through on watching carefully the entries to which they claim "ownership" (to use a business buzzword).

The controversy also is a watershed moment in the history of the tug-of-war that is the Old Media vs. New Media paradigm shift. Seigenthaler is an Old Media practitioner. He started out as a reporter, has worked as a publisher, and in 1986 established the John Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence in First Amendment Studies at Middle Tennessee State University. Described in the pages of that university's College of Mass Communication as a "leading nationwide spokesman for First Amendment freedoms," Seigenthaler demonstrated, in the current scandal, how Old Media people approach speech controversy. He went public. He sought to find out who was responsible. And then he managed to have some grace when the miscreant was discovered.

He did not simply make the necessary change on Wikipedia and be done with it.

By going public he showed how effective the public platform can be, not merely to change one article in a vast website, but also to change the editorial and security policies of that institution.

This week, as if in a follow-up to the controversy, the British journal Nature compared Wikipedia with the Britannica, and found "few differences in accuracy" — though Nature's reviewers maintained "Wikipedia entries were often poorly structured and confused." That's true about some entries, but not all. Britannica, despite its evenness of style, is not a work of perfection either, not by a long shot.

All in all, a happy conclusion. The "market of ideas" may not be a perfect system, and even at its best it is not really automatic. But it does work. In a context of freedom — and public contests.

Wikipedia, I trust, will be better than ever. Perhaps a bit slower to add information, but also less likely to add misinformation and disinformation. It will be good to step into it again. Anew.


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.