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Seigenthaler controversy

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

(Redirected from John Seigenthaler Sr. Wikipedia biography controversy)
John Seigenthaler Sr. in a joint appearance on CNN with Jimmy Wales, 5 December 2005.
John Seigenthaler Sr. in a joint appearance on CNN with Jimmy Wales, 5 December 2005.

In the history of Wikipedia, the Seigenthaler controversy arose when contributor Brian Chase anonymously posted a hoax in the Wikipedia entry for John Seigenthaler, Sr., a well known writer and journalist. The post was not discovered and corrected until more than four months later. This incident received publicity and led to critical examination into the credibility of the information that Wikipedia offers and to policy changes within the Wikimedia Foundation.[1]


Brian Chase was an operations manager of Rush Delivery, a delivery service company in Nashville, Tennessee. As a prank on a colleague, Chase altered Seigenthaler's Wikipedia biography to suggest that Seigenthaler may have had a role in the assassinations of both John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy. While at his workplace on May 26, 2005, Chase added the false texts:

John Seigenthaler Sr. was the assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960s. For a short time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven.


John Seigenthaler moved to the Soviet Union in 1971, and returned to the United States in 1984. He started one of the country's largest public relations firms shortly thereafter.

Detection and correction

In September, Victor S. Johnson, Jr., a friend of Seigenthaler's, discovered the entry. After Johnson alerted him to the article, Seigenthaler e-mailed friends and colleagues about it. On 23 September 2005, colleague Eric Newton copied and pasted Seigenthaler's official biography into Wikipedia from the Freedom Forum web site. Though the false biography had remained on the site for months, the official bio was soon recognized by other Wikipedian editors as a violation of their copyright policy, and they replaced it with a short biography. Newton informed Seigenthaler of his action when he ran into Seigenthaler in November in New York at the Committee to Protect Journalists dinner.

In October 2005, Seigenthaler contacted the then Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation, Jimmy Wales, who took the then-unusual step of having the affected versions of the article history hidden from public view in the Wikipedia version logs, in effect removing them from all but Wikipedia administrators' view.[2] Some "mirror" websites not controlled by Wikipedia continued to display the older and inaccurate article for several more weeks until this new version of the article was propagated to these other websites.

Anonymous editor identified

Wikinews has news related to:
Author of Wikipedia character assassination takes responsibility

Seigenthaler wrote an op-ed article describing the particulars of the incident, which appeared in USA Today, of which he had been the founding editorial director. The article was published on November 29, 2005. In the article, he included a verbatim reposting of the false statements and called Wikipedia a "flawed and irresponsible research tool". An expanded version was published several days later in The Tennessean where Seigenthaler was editor-in-chief in the 1970s. In the article, Seigenthaler detailed his own failed attempts to identify the anonymous person who posted the inaccurate biography. He reported that he had asked the poster's Internet service provider, BellSouth, to identify its user from the user's IP address. BellSouth refused to identify the user without a court order, suggesting that Seigenthaler file a John Doe lawsuit against the user, which Seigenthaler declined to do.

Daniel Brandt, a San Antonio activist who had started the anti-Wikipedia site "Wikipedia Watch" in response to problems he had with his eponymous article, looked up the IP address in Seigenthaler's article, and found that it related to "Rush Delivery", a company in Nashville. He contacted Seigenthaler and the media, and posted this information on his Wikipedia Watch website.

On December 9, Chase admitted he had placed the false information in Seigenthaler's Wikipedia biography.[3] After confessing, Chase resigned from his job at Rush Delivery. Seigenthaler received a hand-written apology and spoke with Chase on the phone. Seigenthaler confirmed — as he had previously stated — that he would not file a lawsuit in relation to the incident, and urged Rush Delivery to rehire Chase, which they did. Seigenthaler commented: "I'm glad this aspect of it is over." He stated that he was concerned that "every biography on Wikipedia is going to be hit by this stuff — think what they'd do to Tom DeLay and Hillary Clinton, to mention two. My fear is that we're going to get government regulation of the Internet as a result."[4]

Seigenthaler's public reaction

On December 5, 2005, Seigenthaler and Wales appeared jointly on CNN to discuss the matter. On December 6, 2005, the two were interviewed on National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation radio program. There Wales described a new policy he implemented preventing unregistered users from creating new articles on the English-language Wikipedia, though they continued to be able to edit existing articles as before.

In the CNN interview, Seigenthaler also raised the spectre of increased government regulation of the Web:

...Can I just say where I'm worried about this leading. 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.

Seigenthaler criticized Congress for passing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act which protects ISPs and web sites from being held legally responsible for disseminating content provided by their customers and users, "unlike print and broadcast companies".

In the December 6 joint NPR interview, Seigenthaler said that he did not want to have anything to do with Wikipedia because he disapproved of its basic assumptions. He also pointed out that the false information had been online for several months before he was aware of it, and that he had not been able to edit the article to correct it, when he did not even know of the article's existence. Editing Wikipedia, he suggested, would lend it his sanction or approval, and stated his belief that editing the article was not enough and instead he wanted to expose "incurable flaws" in the Wikipedia process and ethos.

On December 9, Seigenthaler appeared on C-SPAN's Washington Journal with Brian Lamb hosting. He said he was concerned that other pranksters would try to spoof members of Congress or other powerful figures in government, which may then prompt a backlash and turn back First Amendment rights on the Web.

Other reactions

In reaction to the controversy, New York Times business editor Larry Ingrassia sent out a memo to his entire staff commenting on the reliability of Wikipedia and writing, "We shouldn't be using it to check any information that goes into the newspaper."[5] Several other publications commented on the incident, often criticizing Wikipedia and its open editing model as unreliable, citing the Seigenthaler incident as evidence.

Wikinews has news related to:
Wikipedia and Britannica about as accurate in science entries, reports Nature

The scientific journal Nature published a study comparing the accuracy of Wikipedia and the Encyclopædia Britannica in 42 hard sciences related articles in December, 2005, in which Wikipedia was found to contain 4 serious errors and 162 factual errors, while the Encyclopædia Britannica also contained 4 serious errors but only 123 factual errors;[6] possibly non-intuitive, given the freedom with which content can enter Wikipedia in comparison to Britannica. From this, the journal drew the conclusion "that such high-profile examples (like the Seigenthaler and Curry situations) are the exception rather than the rule."


See also

  • Slander and libel
  • Criticism of Wikipedia
For Wikipedia's policy on the subject, see Biographies of living persons.


  1. ^ The State of the News Media 2006
  2. ^ Wikipedia deletion log
  3. ^ Buchanan, Brian J. (November 17, 2006). Founder shares cautionary tale of libel in cyberspace. via First Amendment Center. Retrieved November 18, 2006.
  4. ^ Author apologizes for fake Wikipedia biography
  5. ^ Wiki-whatdia?
  6. ^ Internet encyclopaedias go head to head

External links

  • Seigenthaler and Wikipedia – Lessons and Questions: A Case Study on the Veracity of the Wiki concept (Inactive as of 02:36, 13 October 2006 (UTC). See talk page for details.)
  • Is an Online Encyclopedia, Such as Wikipedia, Immune From Libel Suits? by Prof. Anita Ramasastry on Writ

News articles

  • Seigenthaler, John. "A False Wikipedia 'biography'", USA Today, 29 November 2005.
  • Cooper, Charles. "Wikipedia and the nature of truth",, 2 December 2005.
  • Seigenthaler, John. "Truth can be at risk in the world of the web", The Tennessean, 4 December 2005.
  • Phillips, Kyra. "Live From... Transcript", CNN, 5 December 2005., interview with John Seigenthaler and Jimmy Wales.
  • Terdiman, Daniel. "Growing pains for Wikipedia",, 5 December 2005.
  • "Wikipedia to Require Contributors to Register", National Public Radio, 6 December 2005., Talk of the Nation story summary and radio broadcast.
  • Terdiman, Daniel. "Is Wikipedia safe from libel liability?",, 7 December 2005.
  • Lamb, Brian. "Interview with John Seigenthaler", C-SPAN Washington Journal, 9 December 2005.
  • Mielczarek, Natalia. "Fake online biography created as 'joke'", The Tennessean, 11 December 2005.
  • "Wikipedia joker eats humble pie", BBC News, 12 December 2005.
  • Orlowski, Andrew. "There's no Wikipedia entry for 'moral responsibility'", The Register (UK), 12 December 2005.
  • Danah Boyd's take on the Seigenthaler incident,, 17 December 2005
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