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12/20/2005
10:21 AM
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Wiki Wisdom

The recent uproar over a fake Wikipedia entry on journalist John Siegenthaler, Sr. should teach us all an important lesson: If you get the itch to libel someone, try to avoid prominent journalists from powerful families -- especially when they have carte blanche to use the USA Today editorial page to hunt you down.

The recent uproar over a fake Wikipedia entry on journalist John Siegenthaler, Sr. should teach us all an important lesson: If you get the itch to libel someone, try to avoid prominent journalists from powerful families -- especially when they have carte blanche to use the USA Today editorial page to hunt you down.Siegenthaler -- scion of a prominent Nashville family, one-time RFK aide, editor/publisher of the Nashville Tennessean, and founding editorial director of USA today -- has a stellar reputation as a journalist and a public servant; clearly, he'd like to protect his legacy against baseless attacks. I also understand how Siegenthaler could be deeply insulted that, during the four months his fake Wikipedia bio remained online and unchallenged, he stood accused of helping to kill Robert Kennedy -- a man he admired as a leader and whom he served as an aide, a trusted adviser, and finally, a pallbearer.

Yet when Siegenthaler used his USA Today soapbox to label Wikipedia as "a flawed and irresponsible research tool," he repeated, even if out of anger and frustration, precisely the same error for which he was flaming Wikipedia and its syndication partners: mindlessly spreading bad information

Is Wikipedia flawed? Absolutely. The idea, however, that Wikipedia is an "irresponsible research tool" is ridiculous -- unless you're in the peculiar habit of blaming tools for their users' foibles.

Granted, some people probably stumbled across the fake Wikipedia article on Siegenthaler and swallowed it, hook, line, and sinker. So what? We also share the planet with people who rely on the "Jerry Springer Show" for their news, or who live in terror of the Trilateral Commission. None of these people are likely to move in the same circles as John Siegenthaler, to know the first thing about his work, or for that matter, to strain themselves pondering anything he may or may not have done.

Did Siegenthaler really know anyone who read the phony Wikipedia entry and accepted any of its false claims as true? It seems highly unlikely -- and even if he did, it's hard to imagine how such a gullible creature could harm him in any meaningful way. The truth is, if this hoax illustrates anything more than a single failure of Wikipedia's current content review process -- a process that, by the way, holds its own against formidable competitors -- it is the fact that critical thinking and healthy skepticism remain, now as ever, alarmingly scarce commodities.

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