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Tricky Wiki

The debate over Wikipedia is heating up on the heels of a December 1st USA Today op-ed by retired journalist John Seigenthaler in which he claims the online encyclopedia, which can be edited by anyone and has been hailed as an outlet for collective-knowledge gathering, was the conduit for "Internet character assassination."

As we previously discussed, Seigenthaler's Wikipedia bio read in part as follows:

"John Seigenthaler Sr. was the assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960's. For a brief time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven."
Responded Seigenthaler: "One sentence in the biography was true. I was Robert Kennedy's administrative assistant in the early 1960s. I also was his pallbearer."

On Monday, the Associated Press reported that Wikipedia was tightening its rules for submitting entries following Seigenthaler's piece. The site's founder, Jimmy Wales, said people will now need to register before creating articles, though they can still modify existing articles without registering. (As the AP notes, "It takes 15-to-20 seconds to create an account on the website, and an e-mail address is not required." Seigenthaler has been unable to discover who wrote the offending passage about him.)

USA Today has been all over this story, not surprising considering that Seigenthaler was the paper's founding editorial director. Yesterday it ran a piece entitled "It's online, but is it true?" Here's a bit:

"…critics worry that not all Internet citizens are savvy enough to realize that most information online needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

"The problem is that Wikipedia is so often considered authoritative," wrote Dave Winer..."That must stop now, surely. Every fact in there must be considered partisan, written by someone with a confect of interest.""

Wales himself says that "[a]ny place where the general public is allowed to freely express their opinion without having any sort of prior approval from authority — it is dangerous." But he adds: "Free speech is dangerous. But it's also incredibly powerful and useful."

CNET today claims that one lesson emerging from the dustup is that "[i]f someone accuses you on Wikipedia of being responsible for killing a person, don't expect much relief from the courts." Seigenthaler, it seems, doesn't have much in the way of a court case for libel, should he attempt to bring one, thanks to a section of the Federal Communications Decency Act. CNET has a nice roundup of coverage here, under the headline "How much do you trust Wikipedia?," including a piece on former MTV VJ Adam Curry, who is "accused of anonymously editing out information in the [Wikipedia entry about podcasting] that discusses some others' roles in the creation of the technology while at the same time pumping up his own role."

NPR interviewed Seigenthaler and Wales on Talk Of The Nation. There was also a Dec. 5th CNN interview – transcript (posted on Wikipedia, natch) here. And remember one big news organization's failed experiment with the "wikitorial"?

One of the most fascinating things about this debate, from a journalistic perspective, is what set it off: A high profile op-ed from a big name former journalist falsely linked with two assassinations. A perfect storm, if you will. This is a debate that has been necessary since the debut of Wikipedia, but if Seigenthaler had not come across his entry, how much longer might we have had to wait for it to take place?