Transcript: John Siegenthaler Discusses Wikipedia on MSNBC

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(Update: Forgive me, it should be Seigenthaler, not “Siegenthaler.”)

As Wikipedia has grown to become one of the most popular reference sites on the Internet — and as such, perhaps Web 2.0’s greatest success story — a backlash has emerged. This week, USA Today published the story of retired journalist John Seigenthaler Sr., whose Wikipedia biography had falsely called him a suspect in the assassinations of both John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. The outrageous claim was part of the bio for four months before Seigenthaler noticed it and had it removed.

Charles Cooper , executive editor of CNET News.com, wrote on the topic Friday, stating: “The hope is that the collective wisdom of the cyberworld can police the system to catch the mistakes sooner rather than later.”

ZDNet blogger Dana Blankenhorn
was even more forgiving: “Most of what is in Wikipedia — 99.44% of it (actually a good deal more) is 100% accurate and fair. The vast majority of people who contribute to Wikipedia are honest, they tell the truth.”

But what do you expect? These are the techie journalists. The more important question is, What implications will the Seigenthaler story have for how the mainstream media views Wikipedia — and, more broadly, Web 2.0?

We may have gotten a preview last night, when Seigenthaler told his story on The Situation with Tucker Carlson on MSNBC:

CARLSON: Here’s a story that proves the old adage you can’t believe everything you read — which we’d add, especially online … Mr. Seigenthaler, thanks a lot for coming on.

SEIGENTHALER: Thanks for having me.

CARLSON: So who did this? And if you still don’t know, tell us what you did to try and find out.

SEIGENTHALER: I don’t know who did it, and I want to find out. And I tried to go to Wikipedia, where it appeared first in May. I didn’t find out about it until late September. But I’d like very much to know. Wikipedia doesn’t know; it apparently was a customer of BellSouth. BellSouth says under the law, privacy provisions prevent them from telling me who it is. The only recourse I have is to file some John or Jane Doe lawsuit and then let whoever did it have the opportunity to quash whatever subpoena came. It’s a very, very tough ordeal to break through the protection that is now encasing online and Internet communication.

CARLSON: But Wikipedia strikes me as a little different because it is, or it presents itself anyway, as a reference book.

SEIGENTHALER: Yes. It calls itself reliable and accountable. Now there is a statement on its Web site that it’s not responsible for error, but beyond that, its founder Jimmy Wales, with whom I’ve talked, has said on a number of occasions that they correct errors in a matter of minutes. And my “biography” was up for four months before they brought it down. And I learned yesterday, from a note he put on his Web site, that dozens of mirror Web sites have picked it up. Now I knew about two — Answers.com and Reference.com, and they’ve taken it down — but I don’t know where else it is, and it’s disturbing.

CARLSON: It is. You were in journalism for decades. Are you aware of any instances where Wikipedia has been used as a source for a news story?

SEIGENTHALER: I had been told by journalists, historians, school teachers that they use it. School teachers tell me their students use it. And my only point in all this is, I’d like to unmask and confront whoever wrote it. But my only point is that Wikipedia’s claims of accountability and credibility are simply not valid. You can read anything on there and never know whether it’s fact or fiction…

CARLSON: Well, I hope you find out who did it, and I hope when you do, you’ll come back and tell us who it is. John Seigenthaler, thanks a lot for coming on.

SEIGENTHALER: Thank you so much, Tucker.

The tone’s a sharp departure from that of the tech journalists, as well as from that of some bloggers who have responded by calling the 78-year-old Seigenthaler names.

Wales should be worried — particularly since, as Steve Rubel notes, many are already concerned about Wikipedia’s growing power.

Technorati tags: Journalism, Web 2.0, Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, CNET, ZDNet, John Siegenthaler, John Seigenthaler

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4 Comments on “Transcript: John Siegenthaler Discusses Wikipedia on MSNBC

  1. Read any article about any Israeli politician, or famous Jew, and you will see a huge bias and anti-Semitic slant in Wikipedia. Or, read the bio on Arafat, and you would think he saved the world.

    Wikipedia is about as trustworthy as the local gossip, and should be used as a source if only all the libraries in the world burnt down, and Nexis and Factiva ceased to exist.

    But, that said, I do use Wikipedia for non-controversial subjects.

  2. Interesting. Could be anti-Semitism, or could be that it reflects the difference between European and American viewpoints on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Maybe both.

    I recently read Richard Ben Cramer’s book on this topic,How Israel Lost: The Four Questions, and highly recommend it.

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