Belmont Club

Myth and true myth

A friend sends a link to this story by the Associated Press:

DUBLIN (AP) — When Dublin university student Shane Fitzgerald posted a poetic but phony quote on Wikipedia, he was testing how our globalized, increasingly Internet-dependent media was upholding accuracy and accountability in an age of instant news.

His report card: Wikipedia passed. Journalism flunked.

The sociology major’s obituary-friendly quote — which he added to the Wikipedia page of Maurice Jarre hours after the French composer’s death March 28 — flew straight on to dozens of U.S. blogs and newspaper Web sites in Britain, Australia and India. They used the fabricated material, Fitzgerald said, even though administrators at the free online encyclopedia twice caught the quote’s lack of attribution and removed it. A full month went by and nobody noticed the editorial fraud. So Fitzgerald told several media outlets they’d swallowed his baloney whole.

Before quoting it, I took the precaution of taking the larger point and checking its source. Since it was about Wikipedia that was easy. The hoax apparently happened, so I went hunting for the particulars. One of the things that Wikipedia does far better than journalism — apart from having “many eyes” to make its bugs shallow, is that it maintains a lineage of its information. For example, the version history of the entry on Maurice Jarre is shown on this page. By treating edits like a database transaction log (which in fact it is), and thereby tracking inserts, edits and deletes, you can ‘play back’ the evolution of a piece of information just like a movie. You can restore to any point in time. This tremendously powerful feature makes Wikipedia, for all its defects architecturally better than the press. You can not only see the hoax entry come and go, it is possible to see how the Wikipedia editors dealt with it.

With all the money available to the mainstream media and broadcast networks during their heyday why did they not do better? Why could they not have implemented a version history? One possible reason was that the media did not want to. Newspapers were not in the information business. They were in the narrative business; and in that profession an editor’s chief ambition is to retain the power to keep his tale in the service of whichever great ideology or personal lord he served. The ability to cast a cloud of forgetfulness over the audience is chief among a bard’s tricks. A version history would allow readers to track the accuracy of journalists and pundits; and in a world where these are directly supported by their readers (by site ad revenues, subscriptions or micropayments) the fabulist or bad analyst will soon be S.O.L.

Can traditional journalism write an expose on itself? Wikipedia is capable of a some sort of self-referential discussion of the Wikipedia Hoax. For a time the hoax had its own entry in Wikipedia. Direct references to the Irish student’s caper have been removed from the latest version of the Jarre entry but it still lives in the discussion page (see the tabs above the Wikipedia entries) behind entry itself. The real problem with the failing journalistic method is architectural. Modern journalists are in some sense no better, information quality wise, than ancient bards; and are often far less dramatic and convincing. The opening lines of Beowulf were a prologue to a tale about monsters, and they were far more arresting than today’s ledes. “President Barack Obama is telling health industry leaders he expects them to deliver on their $2 trillion savings pledge.” That’s about monsters too. Budgetary ones, that is. We live in an age when dragons have grown vast and bards have shrunk to littleness; but be of good cheer: information technology lives!

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