New media help democracy, Seigenthaler, Wales agree

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Editor's note: Following are edited excerpts from a report that ran March 31 in Middle Tennessee State University's Sidelines newspaper. Posted by permission.

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — Veteran journalist John Seigenthaler and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales may have disagreed about emerging forms of Internet communication in the past, but they both seem to agree on one thing.

Though Wikipedia — and other forms of online media — may have a way to go to ensure credibility and accuracy, it should still be regarded as a vital exercise in American democracy.

Seigenthaler, Wales and former Vice President Al Gore participated in a roundtable discussion at MTSU on March 27 as part of a daylong event on the First Amendment and the Internet. Seigenthaler is the founder of the First Amendment Center.

Though they had previously spoken over the phone and been featured together on television, the occasion marked the first time Seigenthaler and Wales appeared together on stage.

In a lecture before the roundtable discussion, Gore tracked the evolution of communication from humans' migration of out of Africa to the invention of Google, saying that the future of American democracy depends on the Internet's freedom.

The challenge that lies before the Internet, Gore said, is ensuring integrity while “supporting a media ecology that reinvigorates that democracy.”

“There are real threats to it that could constrict that flow of information,” he said. “But the [Internet] represents a source of great hope.”

Gore said the vital function of media is in supporting a meritocracy of ideas, something he said that Wikipedia could help reinvigorate.

While it was actually a cordial exchange between Wales and Seigenthaler, several concerns about Wikipedia were discussed.

“I won't feel good about Wikipedia's potential until there is the same passion for credibility as there is for access,” Seigenthaler said. “There's such an excitement, a thrill, about the wonderful world of Wikipedia. I'm worried that there is no commitment to credibility.”

Seigenthaler's Wikipedia biography — now monitored for precision — once falsely linked him with the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy. In 2005, Seigenthaler reported the malicious information to the Wiki powers-that-be.

Seigenthaler called the ordeal “unpleasant.”

“Particularly,” he said, “when there is nothing you can do about it except hurt.”

But Wales noted the journalist's vigilant support of the First Amendment, commending him for never suggesting that Wikipedia be shut down.

“One problem in democracy is the idea that political debate is about radical people screaming at each other,” Wales said. “But it shouldn't just be to say, 'Hey, let's fight!' Instead, it [should be], 'Let's talk about this.' And this is what democracy is about.”

During his speech, Wales didn't ignore the problems that his new form of media faces. Instead, he noted several future steps to ensure credibility and accuracy in the Wiki-world, including the removal of unsourced material without waiting for prior discussion and a new procedure called “flagging,” in which online revisions would first have to be approved.

“Look at the walls in public bathrooms,” he said. “If they're cleaner, it's not as socially appropriate to put graffiti on them … . In an online culture, there must be a balance like in the rest of society. It can't be a police state, but we also don't want old ladies to just get mugged in the park.”

Wales and Gore frequently referred to the democratizing impulse of the Internet.

Wales said that for information to survive on Wikipedia, it must be “written for the enemy.” He said that radical ideas will quickly be corrected by another user in disagreement, leaving only neutral information remaining.

“In Wiki-editing, he said, “there is a mutually assured destruction.”

Gore, who also called Wikipedia “an incredible advance in the aggregation of wisdom,” referred to a self-correcting feature of the Internet — the tendency for bloggers to want to set the record straight.

MTSU students are no strangers to Wikipedia. Many said they have been explicitly told to stay away from using it for research in classes.

“I use [Wikipedia] as a middle agent” to suggest further avenues of research, said Stacey Williams, senior journalism and global-studies major. “It's an idealistic concept, but it still has a way to go. It could be something great.”

Pre-med Junior Philip Milam noted the prolificacy of the Web site, saying that he couldn't search for anything without stumbling upon a Wikipedia page.

“They seem to have a monopoly on Google,” he said. “But I try not to use it for educational research.”

For all that has been said about Seigenthaler's dissatisfaction over Wikipedia's inaccuracies, his exchange with Wales and Gore showed a new perspective.

“To have [Wales] here, to be able to discuss this with him,” Seigenthaler said, “I hope the students [at MTSU] know just how phenomenal it really is what he does.”

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