William Beutler on Wikipedia

A Jarre-ing Experience

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on May 7, 2009 at 9:09 am by William Beutler

Wikipedia is in the news this morning for another hoax, although the “joke” was not meant to be on Wikipedia per se. Here a Slashdot contributor summarizes a story in the Irish Times:

A quote attributed to French composer Maurice Jarre was posted on wikipedia shortly after his death in March and later appeared in obituaries in mainstream media. ‘One could say my life itself has been one long soundtrack. Music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life. When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head, that only I can hear,’ Jarre was quoted as saying. However, these words were not uttered by the Oscar-winning composer but written by Shane Fitzgerald, a final-year undergraduate student, who said he wanted to show how journalists use the internet as a primary source for their stories.

Here is the Wikipedia article for Maurice Jarre as it looks whenever you happen to come upon this blog post. At the time of this writing, someone has added a section describing the incident. I’m always ambivalent about meta-paragraphs of this sort — usually included when someone has tried to edit their own entry — and I am even more conflicted about this one. I would not be surprised if it gets the axe before long. And here is the precise edit as made by Fitzgerald, d/b/a The section read in full:


Nowadays, if a studio assumes that his film is bad, there is always an executive that gets more nervous than usual and thinks that if they change the music, the film will become a masterpiece.

One could say my life itself has been one long soundtrack. Music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life. When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head and that only I can hear.

When I was 15, I did not know nothing about what concerned the world of music

Soon I worked during twelve years in theater works of the prestigious Theatre National Populaire. It was the best time of my life, the most difficult, the most interesting, the most exciting.

Kudos are in order for editor RayAYang, who flagged the section as needing verification just two minutes later. Credit also goes to editor Cosprings, who removed the section, presumably after being unable to verify any of them.

But that wasn’t the end of it, because what Irish Times does not say is that Fitzgerald went back several hours later and again added the “one long soundtrack” quote to the page, where it then remained for about 24 hours before Cosprings removed it again for the same reason. Fitzgerald persisted, adding the quote a third time before being quickly reverted by another editor.

There’s a word for this at Wikipedia: vandal.

Shane Fitzgerald’s experiment probably runs afoul of the Wikipedia guideline Do not disrupt Wikipedia to illustrate a point, except as noted before, Wikipedia is only an object — if a key one — of the subject being “studied.” That’s why he added it again; if Wikipedia was being tested on whether articles about people in the news would be closely edited, well, Fitzgerald already had that unsurprising answer. In fact, one could say that diligent Wikipedians tried to assist lazy journalists by removing information that wasn’t credible.

So which newspapers fell for the hoax? As far as I can tell, the only big one in the English-speaking world was The Guardian, although via content syndication the erroneous quote probably traveled much further. India’s Economic Times also was duped. However, I can find no evidence that mainstream American journalists were among the hoaxed.

So you’ll have to put me among the crowd that is not impressed with Fitzgerald’s “findings.” That British journalism has less than rigorous standards is not a new revelation, and obituary writers in the U.S., Canada, Australia and elsewhere in English-language media managed to resist the temptation to take a Wikipedia article at its word. Good for them and good for Wikipedia. And as I finish writing this post, the “Wikipedia Hoax” section has in fact already been removed.

  1. The Irish times article actually does mention that he re-posted it a couple of more times. And re English media – I don’t think anyone is surprised at how easily they are duped, I’m just disappointed in the Guardian

  2. I apologize for how long it took for me to approve your comment — anr reply. However, the Irish Times story linked here does not include that particular detail, and makes Wikipedia look less conscientious than it truly is, which is obviously of some annoyance to me.

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