Copyright ©2005 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

And here are the headlines from some of the stories we're following here today at NPR News. The trial of Saddam Hussein continued today in Baghdad. A female witness whose identity was concealed gave a chilling account of torture in Saddam's prisons. Also, two suicide bombers struck Baghdad's police academy today killing at least 36 people, wounding more than 70 others. Al-Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement posted on a Web site. You can hear details on those stories and, of course, much more later today on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, the use and abuse of interrogation. We'll talk with law enforcers who've conducted interrogations about what works, what doesn't and why interrogation remains such a controversial practice. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

John Seigenthaler is a veteran journalist. He's the former editor and publisher of The Tennessean in Nashville, as well as the first editorial-page editor for USA Today. He is not--and let us repeat--not--in any way connected to the assassinations of John F. Kennedy or his brother Robert. He was somewhat surprised, therefore, when he read his biography on Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can write for or edit which linked him to those murders. Wikipedia has since removed those errors and changed its policy so that users have to register before they can contribute articles (technical difficulty) stop users from editing content as they wish. Well, how much trust do you now put in Wikipedia? It's a subject we've previously addressed on TALK OF THE NATION. (800) 989-8255, if you'd like to join us; (800) 989-TALK. E-mail us: totn@npr.org.

Joining us now from a studio at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, is John Seigenthaler.

And it's nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. JOHN SEIGENTHALER (Founder, Freedom Forum First Amendment Center): Thank you so much.

CONAN: How did you first learn about the entry in Wikipedia with your name on it? Your bio?

Mr. SEIGENTHALER: A friend of mine, a fellow named Victor Johnson here--he's in his 90s and he surfs the Net and he called me one day and said, `Google and then hit the Wikipedia link and under your name you'll find something that's outrageous.' And so I did, and I was outraged.

CONAN: I can bet that you were. Apparently, there was one line in it that said you were an assistant in the Justice Department during the Kennedy administration. That part was right.

Mr. SEIGENTHALER: That part was true.

CONAN: And everything else in there...

Mr. SEIGENTHALER: I was Bobby Kennedy's administrative assistant for the first 14 months of the administration.

CONAN: So when you read these outrageous charges, what did you do about it?

Mr. SEIGENTHALER: Well, I, first of all, tried to for the first time find out what Wikipedia was about and a few days later, my son John, who's a television journalist at NBC in New York, called and said, `Dad, you're on Reference.com and Answers.com with the same stuff.' And so then it was not on one Web site; it was on three. And I now know, as Mr. Wales said, on dozens of others; may still be on dozens of others as far as I know.

But then I set about to try to locate Jimmy Wales and the representatives of the other two Web sites, and finally after a couple of weeks, got in touch with Mr. Wales and he cooperatively, immediately took it out of Wikipedia's history.

CONAN: And it took a little bit longer, but you got it out of the two other Web sites that you knew about.

Mr. SEIGENTHALER: That's right.

CONAN: This being the World Wide Web, it's possible that this could be bouncing around there forever though.

Mr. SEIGENTHALER: It could be. My grandson, Jack, who's the third John Seigenthaler, will probably be 40, 50 years old and may find that his grandfather in some parts of the world is suspected of being an assassin. The conspiracy theory may be revived as a result of Wikipedia.

CONAN: The--one thing I also know that you tried to do was track down the name of whoever it was who posted this. One way to discourage people from doing this is to sue them.

Mr. SEIGENTHALER: I'm not really--I'm not about that. I've founded a First Amendment center at Vanderbilt University and obviously the First Amendment protects outrageous speech. Other people may want to sue for defamation. My theory is that the best way to respond to outrageous speech is to answer it with better speech, and I tried to do that with a column in USA Today. And now the search continues to find the person. I've been able to narrow the origin of the Internet protocol number, the IP number, to my home area in middle Tennessee, and I think that I or perhaps some investigative reporter will work hard and our efforts will result in my finding out.

Obviously, the person who did it told others and the others told others, so it's not that big a secret; it's just a question of finding the location and then finding the person. And then I simply want to confront them and ask them why and find out more about the origins of this and what motivated it.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. This is John. John, calling us from Phoenix, Arizona.

JOHN (Caller): Yeah, you know, I'm curious why you didn't edit your own Wikipedia entry, given that you can do that.

Mr. SEIGENTHALER: Yeah. The truth of the matter is I don't want to have anything to do with Wikipedia. I was offended by it and I didn't put it up; Mr. Wales, who's responsible for it being on Wikipedia, took it down. There is now, as a result of other entries made over the last five days, even worse stuff--vicious, vindictive, almost violent stuff--homophobic, racist stuff about me that was diverted and put into the history, and I hope Mr. Wales has now taken that out of my history on the Web. But I choose to answer in my own way, and my own way is to expose what I think are incurable flaws in the Wikipedia method of doing things.

I didn't know about this for four months. I couldn't take it down because I didn't know about it for four months. And when I found out about it, I contacted him and he cooperatively took it down. And then I responded in my way with an article in USA Today.

CONAN: John, thanks very much.

JOHN: Thank you.

Mr. SEIGENTHALER: Thank you.

CONAN: And Jimmy Wales joins us now on the phone. He's founder of Wikipedia and he's with us from his office in St. Petersburg, Florida.

And, Mr. Wales, nice of you to join us again on TALK OF THE NATION. Appreciate your time.

Mr. JIMMY WALES (Wikimedia Foundation): I'm very good. Thanks. It's nice to be here.

CONAN: Just wanted to get your end of this story with Mr. Seigenthaler, and when he contacted you what did you do?

Mr. WALES: Well, I was, you know, horrified to see this on the site, so I just immediately had those revisions deleted from the history, and you know, apologized to Mr. Seigenthaler. So you know, we try to be extremely responsive to those kind of things.

CONAN: And I understand you also instituted some changes.

Mr. WALES: Yes, well, just recently we've instituted changes that are really part of an ongoing, you know, system of changes on the Web site. So we're always tweaking how we do things, making adjustments here and there to try to improve our processes and procedures so that we can improve the quality.

CONAN: But as I understand it, now you have to be a registered user in order to start a wiki, start an entry.

Mr. WALES: To create a new page, yeah, that's correct. The idea here is to basically slow down the pace of new page creation because part of what happened in this case and, you know, as an ongoing question is when the new pages patrollers are overwhelmed with volume, then things may slip through the cracks. And so this is a way of slowing that down so that people can have more time to actually review the new pages as they're created.

CONAN: And this is the group of about 600 people, volunteers, who look at these things and double-check them.

Mr. WALES: Yeah, that's right. Yeah, 600 to a thousand; it depends on how you measure who's really active.

CONAN: But though there are now restrictions on who can create a new entry, anybody can still edit.

Mr. WALES: That's right. Yeah. Anybody can still edit. It's still a very open process. But the difference is when a new page is created, as it was in this case, the page is often fairly obscure on the Web site. In other words, it isn't well-linked from other articles, and in this case because of that, you know, nobody really saw the article among the editors, so what we want to do is--it's perfectly fine if people are editing articles that are well-watched and well-taken-care-of, because those entries are carefully monitored. It's just a problem if it's a newer entry and it isn't on anyone's watch list and it isn't linked from anywhere; it could be overlooked.

CONAN: But with anybody still allowed to edit, well, malicious things could still creep in.

Mr. WALES: Well, yeah, I mean, that's going to be true of any sort of open process anywhere on the Internet. I mean, people can post on message boards, things like that. The difference here is that we actually have a process for correcting that. We have a community that monitors things. You know, if somebody posts something malicious on your typical message board, it's very difficult to even track down who you're supposed to complain to, to have that taken down. With us it's just one click to make the fix.

CONAN: Yet it is also possible and you certainly know much more about the Web than I do, but this information about Mr. Seigenthaler is going to be, A, it was copied we certainly know onto other Web sites, and it could be bouncing around there for a long time.

Mr. WALES: Well, sure. Now it's been published at USA Today in his editorial, so...

Mr. SEIGENTHALER: That's right.

Mr. WALES: ...it is, of course, you know, widely seen. But you know, at least for us and the partner sites that we work with it's been taken down from the site, you know, for quite some time. And you know, that's really important to us.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Jason. Jason, with us from Nashville, Tennessee.

JASON (Caller): Hello, gentlemen. I was under the impression that, you know, Wikipedia was kind of to be taken with a grain of salt, knowing that everyone can contribute to it and I've never, you know, had a personal attack put on Wikipedia about me, but isn't that kind of--when you read Wikipedia, you kind of understand there is going to be, you know, a little bit of craziness in there and that's what's fun about it? That's what keeps it up to date?

CONAN: Is that right, Jimmy Wales?

Mr. WALES: Well, I definitely think that you should take Wikipedia with a grain of salt. I think you should take almost everything with a grain of salt, but in particular, Wikipedia is definitely a work in process. We don't intend for there to be any craziness in it. I mean, we don't accept this sort of thing at all. But as a work in process that's being currently written live on the Internet by thousands of volunteers, we aren't yet at the stage where we can say, `Well, these are the reviewed versions of the articles,' that we can point to and say, `These are botanic(ph) or better quality.' We're not there yet, but that's the direction we are trying to head.

JASON: Thank you, gentlemen.

CONAN: Thank you very much for the call, Jason.

We're talking with John Seigenthaler, a former editor and publisher of The Tennessean and former editorial editor of USA Today, who found a scandalous entry about himself on Wikipedia, and with Jimmy Wales, founder of the Wikimedia Foundation.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Mr. Wales, one thing Mr. Seigenthaler was trying to do was track down whoever it was who did post this entry on Wikipedia. Were you able to help him very much?

Mr. WALES: No, not very much. I mean, we were able to trace it to--BellSouth was the ISP. But from that point, and this is something that I definitely would agree with Mr. Seigenthaler about, part of the problem here is that ISPs tend to be very unhelpful in helping us deal with problem users. So when people come and do something malicious to Wikipedia--they start putting spam in Wikipedia or they, you know, try that--all we can do is we block the IP number, but when we make complaints to ISPs we typically get essentially no response from them. And I think that's a serious problem.

CONAN: 'Cause it seems to me that you would be just as interested as Mr. Seigenthaler in finding out who this was.

Mr. WALES: Oh, absolutely. You know, it's a terrible thing when people abuse freedom of speech, you know, in a way that puts all of us at risk really. And--but it's a difficult problem because, you know, we don't live in an era anymore when there are a handful of people who are effectively able to use their freedom of speech. We live in an era when, you know, anyone on the planet who's connected to the Internet has the ability to publish to a global audience. That gives rise to a whole new environment and a lot of interesting questions.

CONAN: And, Mr. Seigenthaler, I apologize. I'm told that you need to leave us. Any final words before you go about this experience about Wikipedia?

Mr. SEIGENTHALER: Yes. I'd just like to make a point that I think the fix that's attempted it helpful, but the real problem is that it's not fixable in the long run. Over the last five days that I said--some vicious, homophobic, racist material has been put on, and now there have been, before the lock was put on my biography, there were very industrious editors who were watching very carefully. And they did what Mr. Wales will tell you is they reverted that stuff, which means that it went into the history, and so any child who knows how Wikipedia works will be able in the future simply to go to the name and then hit the history panel and then find out right there what the material was and so the viciousness goes on. And so I appreciate his effort to fix it, but in the final analysis unless he addresses the in-depth problem and recognizes that there are people who are going to come in and contribute and continue to defame, it's--Wikipedia's not going to be a reliable source for many people in this country.

CONAN: And, Mr. Seigenthaler, thank you very much for being with us today. John Seigen...

Mr. SEIGENTHALER: Thanks so much to you, and to you, Mr. Wales.

Mr. WALES: Thank you.

CONAN: OK. He's had to leave. We have a couple of minutes left. Jimmy Wales, can we get another caller on the line?

Mr. WALES: Well, I just wanted real quick to respond to what he just said...

CONAN: Oh, sure.

Mr. WALES: ...because I think he's missing some important factual information, which is that we have the ability to go in and delete individual revisions from the revision history...

CONAN: Ah, so that it's not there to find?

Mr. WALES: Pardon?

CONAN: So that these scurrilous things are not there to find.

Mr. WALES: They're not there to find, right. Right. And in fact, we went through the article again this morning. This particular article is under intense attention from all over the world right now because there's been a lot of press coverage and so forth...

CONAN: Sure.

Mr. WALES: ...so, you know, we're making extra sure. The typical case, though, is that, by and large, most people are not doing malicious things at Wikipedia. You know, most of the revisions that we get are very high quality even from, you know, random IP numbers on the Internet. But we do have the ability in cases like this to go in and just completely remove offensive revisions from the revision history, 'cause we--you know, we have no interest in publishing that version.

CONAN: Quickly, Joseph. Joseph, with us from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

JOSEPH (Caller): Hi. How's it going?

CONAN: OK.

JOSEPH: I'm calling to ask you about identity systems. I was wondering if you were planning on implementing any of the ongoing identity projects that are going on to help emphasize trust amongst users, like Identity 2.0. Just so most of the listeners who don't know much about that are concerned.

CONAN: We have very little time, so just give Mr. Wales a chance to respond.

JOSEPH: OK.

Mr. WALES: I can just answer that very quickly. Yeah, we're looking into those kinds of things. So far we haven't seen anything that's really mature enough or useful enough for us to be able to use. We do have (technical difficulty) within the Web site--in other words, people can track other people's contributions and see what they've done and that's part of how within our core community we all know each other and there's a level of trust over time. But in terms of transferring trust across different Web sites on the Internet, I think it's an interesting development, but I don't think it's there yet.

CONAN: Joseph, thanks for the call.

JOSEPH: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And, Jimmy Wales, I know this is no fun. We appreciate your time today.

Mr. WALES: (Laughs) Thank you.

CONAN: Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia. He joined us from his office in St. Petersburg, Florida.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.