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Why John Seigenthaler is an example of Wikipedia Excelling
Review by Jeffrey P. Bigham

On November 29, 2005, USA Today published an opinion piece by John Seigenthaler. It turns out that the biography of him that appeared on Wikipedia for over four months made some pretty outrageous claims about the former assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, including that he was involved in the Kennedy assassinations and had fled to the Soviet Union for more than fifteen years. This led to a storm of criticism of Wikipedia with some claiming it would be the end to the popular online encyclopedia of popular opinion.

First, I find it odd that this has become such a big story. In general, the articles on wikipedia are well-researched, fairly unbiased and factual. There are hundreds of editors that spend a lot of time making sure that most articles submitted are correct and converge to truth. I argue that the wikipedia model did not fail here - it actually excelled.

What seems to have happened in this case is that John Seigenthaler wasn't that popular so converging took a bit longer than would be ideal. If you do a Google search for "John Seigenthaler" a good fraction of the hits are about the "scandal" suggesting that he wasn't that popular of a figure before this. Similarly, he's not in Encarta or Britannica. In contrast, look at the very contentious George W. Bush biography on wikipedia - despite some troubles with vandals a while ago, it's basically accurate and has managed to converge to something unbiased. I think that's a great triumph.

Without Wikipedia the few articles about John Seigenthaler would be on static websites whose fact-checking policies are even more dubious. Britannica or Encarta aren't going to touch this guy (again, check their sites) because he wasn't an important enough figure for them to spend money double-checking facts about him. Wikipedia is a great compromise because it provides information about relatively unpopular topics along with the ability for this articles to converge toward truth fairly quickly. It may not be ideal, but unpopular articles necessarily take longer to converge because the incremental changes are naturally made less frequently. Look at the John Seigenthaler article now - it's pretty good.

What confounds me, however, is that instead of making a big fuss, Mr. Seigenthaler could have just taken the few seconds required to change the article himself, overwriting whatever conspiracy theorist wrote the original dribble. And he didn't need to write a highly publicized opinion piece or get a lot of people on his side to do it. Try that with the print media or another website.

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