William Beutler on Wikipedia

The So-Called Fight Over Barack Obama’s Wikipedia Article

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on March 10, 2009 at 7:27 am by William Beutler

There are two stories going around in the past 24 hours about President Obama’s biographical article on Wikipedia. One, from FoxNews.com, is about the article downplaying Obama’s relationship with the controversial pastor Jeremiah Wright and eliminating all references to erstwhile domestic terrorist William Ayers. The second is from WorldNetDaily and concerns Wikipedia editors reverting attempts to mention the alleged controversy over whether Obama was in fact born somewhere outside the United States, thus making him ineligible for the presidency (misleadingly promoted at Druge as “WIKIPEDIA scrubs Obama page clean of critical entries…”).

While I haven’t done extensive research into the history of this page or its associated talk page, I think there are reasonable questions involved but as we will get to later, this is ultimately a non-story.

First of all, Fox was wise to have ignored WND’s primary concern: there is a big difference between campaign controversies that merited mainstream press attention and those which remained the confined to blogs and message boards. The editor who removed the “eligibility” information the first time cited WP:FRINGE and WP:UNDUE and if neither guideline is familiar, they are worth studying. However, due to the actual lawsuits that were not covered in conjunction with the campaign, the subject is deserving of its own Wikipedia article, and it has one: Barack Obama citizenship conspiracy theories.

Meanwhile, I can at least envision a case being made that Ayers warrants a mention on this page, although not much more of one than what Wright gets:

Obama resigned from Trinity during the Presidential campaign after controversial statements made by Rev. Jeremiah Wright became public.[200]

This sentence resides in the “Family and personal life” section, and is the closing sentence in a paragraph on Obama’s religious views. This also points to the fact that Wright was, by all accounts, a much more important person in Obama’s life than was Ayers. It’s true, the article does not mention that inspiration for the title “The Audacity of Hope” comes from Wright, but the article on the book most certainly does.

In fact, Fox News’ Joshua Rhett Miller concedes there is less than meets the eye here in this paragraph:

Obama’s controversial relationships with both men have two extensive independent Wikipedia pages: “Bill Ayers presidential election controversy” and “Jeremiah Wright controversy.” The associations, however, are largely downplayed or ignored altogether in Obama’s main Wikipedia entry.

True (see here and here, respectively). There is also a discussion of Wright in the article about Obama’s presidential primary campaign and mentions of Ayers in that article as well as the one about his general election campaign. This is whitewashing?

That said, the concern that supporters of President Obama may zealously guard the page is a real one. Wikipedia has a whole guideline pointing out that no single editor has ownership over any article, which is a pretty good indication that this does happen. Because Wikipedia runs on consensus, it is also possible that a group of like-minded editors are reinforcing each other’s desire to see negative material removed from the article. Likewise, relegating disputed material to another page in order to avoid debates is called POV forking, and is discouraged. However, I see no clear-cut evidence this either the case, and it would take several hours’ research for me to know enough to say.

Meanwhile, what is clear is that the editor whose reverted additions of aforementioned material did a clumsy job, is obviously motivated by political considerations and is hardly a conscientious Wikipedia contributor. As Wired points out:

Of more interest is the identity of the mysterious Jerusalem21, whose courageous disregard of Wikipedia’s ban on fringe material provided WND’s Aaron Klein with his smoking gun in the first place, spawning what will soon be a national wiki-scandal.

Curiously, it turns out that Jerusalem21, whoever he or she might be, has only worked on one other Wikipedia entry since the account was created, notes ConWebWatch. That’s Aaron Klein’s entry, which Jerusalem21 created in 2006, and has edited 37 times.

Who watches the watchmen, indeed.