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Defending Wikipedia (and the NYT)--updated!



Richard Perez-Pena reports today that his employer, the New York Times, sought and received the cooperation of Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales as it worked to conceal reporter David Rohde's November 2008 kidnapping. [UPDATE: I originally wrote that the New York Times had "successfully pressured" Wales to delete reports of Rohde's kidnapping, but Wales objected that the term "pressured" was misleading. I've changed the text accordingly; his full objection and my response can be found in the comments.] The Times argued that publicizing Rohde's abduction would increase his value to his Afghan captors and lessen his chances of survival.

Is this problematic? In one sense, yes: if Wikipedia's your first stop for information, the Rohde case might make you less inclined to trust the site down the road. And if you're one of Wikipedia's stalwart contributors, you might be less inclined to contribute your energies.

That said, I find it very hard to criticize either the Times Co. or Wikipedia's conduct here. Rohde's situation was a matter of life and death. The Times simply had do everything in its power to increase his chances of survival. (Fortunately, Rohde escaped.)

Also, while Wikipedia did constrain the freedom of some of its users, it didn't violate their freedom of speech. The individuals who wanted to get word of Rohde's kidnapping out could have contacted countless news outlets, for example; or nabbed a relevant blogspot account to publicize Rohde's situation and Wikipedia's response; or simply stood on the streetcorner handing out leaflets that did the same.

Fire away, Wiki-purists! (Also, here's a more skeptical take on Wikipedia's conduct.)

  • Older Thandirt said:

    I'd be more understanding if it wasn't for the NYT double-standard. When it comes to releasing information about our secret program to track terrorists finances, they have no qualms about publishing that info, in essence working against America's safety. So what happens when terrorism hits home with them? Surprise, it's "hush-hush" to the point of deleting public information again or again. I'm glad the reporter is OK, but I'll never trust the NYT, and now wikipedia.

    June 29, 2009 1:11 PM
  • Adam Reilly said:

    Older, that's a good point, and one I should have addressed in my post. Here's my take: when the Times reports something like the warrantless wiretapping story, they're operating on the assumption that the threat to privacy is a massive public ill that outweighs any potential safety threat stemming from their reporting. In the Rohde case, I think, there's no comparable public ill that would have followed directly from the decision not to report.

    Of course, the potential downside of reporting Rohde's kidnapped status--i.e., one man's life, versus (possibly) thousands or tens of thousands--was smaller, if more imminent. It's definitely tricky. And you won't be the only one making the hypocrisy charge.

    June 29, 2009 1:26 PM
  • Was Wikipedia correct to censor news of David Rohde’s capture? | said:

    Pingback from  Was Wikipedia correct to censor news of David Rohde’s capture?  |

    June 29, 2009 4:13 PM
  • John Doe said:

    Why are we to believe that the NYTimes was acting in Rohde's best interest? Because they say so? Aren't they the same people engineering the coverup? Couldn't they be covering for some kind of legal liability they might have?

    Beyond that, I'd like to know where I can get my "stories that might kill you will not be published" pass. I'd send mine to George Tiller. Oh wait, I guess late-term abortions are more in the public interest than ongoing kidnappings in Afganistan, right?

    June 29, 2009 4:54 PM
  • Is the Times Guilty of Wiki-pediment? « Campaign Outsider said:

    Pingback from  Is the Times Guilty of Wiki-pediment? « Campaign Outsider

    June 30, 2009 2:42 AM
  • Jimmy Wales said:

    It is not accurate at all to say either that the New York Times pressured me - there was no pressure of any kind, what pressure could they possibly exert on me?

    Nor did anyone bend or break any rules of Wikipedia - we have very strict rules about reliable sourcing and biographies of living persons, and we enforced those standards.

    June 30, 2009 7:08 PM
  • Adam Reilly said:

    Jimmy: perhaps "successfully pressured" was a poor choice of words. I was attempting to paraphrase this part of Richard Perez-Pena's article:

    "Around that time, Catherine J. Mathis, the chief spokeswoman for the New York Times Company, called Mr. Wales and asked for his help. Knowing that his own actions on Wikipedia draw attention, Mr. Wales turned to an administrator, one of several who would eventually become involved in monitoring and controlling the page.

    "On Nov. 13, news of the kidnapping was posted and deleted four times within four hours, before an administrator blocked any more changes for three days. On Nov. 16, it was blocked again, for two weeks."

    So--would you be amenable to "sought and received Wikipedia's cooperation"? I'll make the change above, and reference both the original wording and your objection.

    Also, I didn't say that Wikipedia broke any of its rules, as you suggest in your comment. I said Wikipedia constrained the freedom of some of its users. That seems accurate to me, since you (i.e., Wikipedia) seem to have made a concerted effort to delete information you knew to be true. (Presumably Mathis's phone call established that Rohde had, in fact, been kidnapped.) If I'm wrong, feel free to explain why. And thanks for weighing in.

    June 30, 2009 9:36 PM
  • Nate said:

    The interesting part is that the whole thing is in-line whit the core Wikipedia policy one Biographies of living Persons:

    In a nutshell: Wikipedia articles can affect real people's lives. This gives us an ethical and legal responsibility. Biographical material must be written with the greatest care and attention to verifiability, neutrality and avoiding original research.

    and in the first paragraph:

    The possibility of harm to living subjects is one of the important factors to be considered when exercising editorial judgment.

    So keeping information off a page in an attempt to keep someone alive seems fair

    July 9, 2009 5:52 AM
  • Headlines for June 29th, 2009 | Modern Media Mom said:

    Pingback from  Headlines for June 29th, 2009  | Modern Media Mom

    July 31, 2009 10:28 AM

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