So, the Seigenthaler affair is getting a lot of coverage, and now that my deadline's past I feel that I can weigh in. Katharine Seelye, in a recent Week in Review, asked:
According to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, John Seigenthaler Sr. is 78 years old and the former editor of The Tennessean in Nashville. But is that information, or anything else in Mr. Seigenthaler's biography, true?
Seelye then went on to discuss the inaccuracies in Wikipedia's Seigenthaler bio, of which Seigenthaler complained in a recent USA Today Op-Ed.
Ah, the irony: Katherine Seelye wrings her hands about people making stuff stuff up. The Wikipedia entry can be fixed by anybody. Seigenthaler could have just clicked the "edit" link and corrected the mistake. But the damage Katharine Seelye did in her 2000 election coverage can never be undone. I find Seelye's distorted coverage of the distinction between the Gore and Bush budgets particularly irksome, but perhaps you'd prefer Seelye's deceitful coverage of the Gore/Bradley primary debates.
So do I trust Wikipedia? About as far as I trust a newspaper, or Brittanica, or a recently published peer-reviewed scientific result; which is to say, not really. All knowledge I obtain through all these sources is merely provisional and subject to change. But absolute trust isn't a useful benchmark of value here. If I held all my information sources to the standard of absolute trust, then the only things I'd believe would be machine-checkable proofs of mathematical theorems (which, by the way, excludes nearly all nontrivial published theorems in the math and computer science literature). But that would be a ridiculous way to live. The right question here is: are we better off because this resource exists? Or, in other words, is the net value positive? And for Wikipedia, the answer's undoubtedly yes, at least for me.
Therefore, my answer to Wikipedia critics is: if Wikipedia's net value to you is negative, then don't use it. On the other hand, if you want me to stop using it, you must convince me that I'm mistaken, and that I'm worse off now than I was before Wikipedia existed. That's a pretty tough sell, because I'll require empirical evidence --- not that Wikipedia has errors, which it obviously does, but that Wikipedia's meaningfully worse than the alternatives. I don't believe that's the case. In my area of expertise (programming languages), Wikipedia's relatively reasonable. It's at least as good as any coverage in the popular press, or even most of the computing industry press. Of course, Wikipedia isn't TAPL, but then nothing is.
Finally, let's remember that Seigenthaler hardly needs our pity or assistance here. In his Op-Ed, he painted himself as a helpless victim, but he's a heavy player in media circles. He's heavy enough to get an Op-Ed published in USA Today simply because he found some random nonsense on the Internet. Think about that: if I got an Op-Ed published every time I found nonsense on the Internet, I'd have more bylines than Krugman, Dowd, Brooks, and Friedman put together. He's heavy enough that the Wikipedia prankster was forced to resign from his (non-journalism) job, presumably because the prankee (a co-worker of the prankster) was a friend of Seigenthaler family and wanted to remain in their good graces. Ask yourself this: has anybody ever forced someone out of a job simply to remain in your good graces? And he's a heavy enough player that the noises he's making about Wikipedia inviting regulation, e.g. in this CNN interview, might be taken seriously. Seigenthaler says:
Next year we go into an election year. Every politician is going to find himself or herself subjected to the same sort of outrageous commentary that hit me, and hits others.
I'm afraid we're going to get regulated media as a result of that. And I -- I tell you, I think if you can't fix it, both fix the history as well as the biography pages, I think it's going to be in real trouble, and we're going to have to be fighting to keep the government from regulating you.
Elsewhere in the interview, he disavows wanting the government to regulate Wikipedia. However, Seigenthaler's tone bears no small resemblance to a mobster's when warning a shopkeeper that if he doesn't pay for protection, hey, it's a dangerous neighborhood, and somebody might come along some night and burn something down. The truth is, people like Seigenthaler are a much greater threat to a free society than Wikipedia or its vandals.
Incidentally, the fantasy nightmare scenario that Siegenthaler spun on CNN bears no resemblance to reality. Wikipedia existed during the 2004 election. The Bush and Kerry articles were vigorously vandalized, and vigorously corrected, and today they're probably among the most factually accurate public sources of information about the two former candidates. There was no Wikipedia Chernobyl, no meltdown of defamation and reaction. The process worked. Of course, veteran newsman and paragon of journalistic integrity John Seigenthaler could not be bothered to investigate what happened during the 2004 election before speculating on national television about what could happen during the next election. Which, if you think about it, sort of undermines his point.
Further reading: John Seigenthaler Sr. Wikipedia biography controversy and talk thereof.