The issue first came to my attention via Michael Parfit, one of the directors of The Whale, a terrific yet under-seen 2011 documentary that I had expected to appeal to a wider audience (albeit for some of the wrong reasons), especially since it was produced by Scarlett Johansson and Ryan Reynolds, who also narrates. “IMDb is a very important site for us,” Parfit tells me via email, “perhaps more than for a major studio film. We often work with people in the industry who are only vaguely aware of our film. The first place they go is to IMDb to get more info. But when you go on IMDb or IMDbPro and look up The Whale, the information you get is, to say the least, misleading.”
Some of his complaints have to do with seemingly nit-picky data that most of us don’t think much about but which is actually a big concern for those on the inside. For example, one of The Whale’s distributors is listed as a production company, which would seem like an easy fix. But often such errors aren’t even noticed immediately, and when they are caught they’re still not quickly amended (the film’s “company credits” info remains incorrect).
“Repairs and additions have always taken so long that they’re almost useless when they are finally done,” Parfit says. “When the news of Ryan Reynolds’ involvement in the film came out, and was widely covered, we tried to get his name in the database as the film’s narrator for months — months! — before it appeared. At the time we were seeking investors. What must they have thought when they looked on IMDb and did not see the celebrity name we had told them was part of the film? They would not have thought that the highly-trusted IMDb was wrong.”
For the past 10 years I’ve immersed myself in the details of one of the most famous events in American labor history, the Haymarket riot and trial of 1886. Along the way I’ve written two books and a couple of articles about the episode. In some circles that affords me a presumption of expertise on the subject. Not, however, on Wikipedia.
The bomb thrown during an anarchist rally in Chicago sparked America’s first Red Scare, a high-profile show trial, and a worldwide clemency movement for the seven condemned men. Today the martyrs’ graves are a national historic site, the location of the bombing is marked by a public sculpture, and the event is recounted in most American history textbooks. Its Wikipedia entry is detailed and elaborate.
A couple of years ago, on a slow day at the office, I decided to experiment with editing one particularly misleading assertion chiseled into the Wikipedia article. The description of the trial stated, “The prosecution, led by Julius Grinnell, did not offer evidence connecting any of the defendants with the bombing. … “
Coincidentally, that is the claim that initially hooked me on the topic. In 2001 I was teaching a labor-history course, and our textbook contained nearly the same wording that appeared on Wikipedia. One of my students raised her hand: “If the trial went on for six weeks and no evidence was presented, what did they talk about all those days?” I’ve been working to answer her question ever since.
I have not resolved all the mysteries that surround the bombing, but I have dug deeply enough to be sure that the claim that the trial was bereft of evidence is flatly wrong. One hundred and eighteen witnesses were called to testify, many of them unindicted co-conspirators who detailed secret meetings where plans to attack police stations were mapped out, coded messages were placed in radical newspapers, and bombs were assembled in one of the defendants’ rooms.
In what was one of the first uses of forensic chemistry in an American courtroom, the city’s foremost chemists showed that the metallurgical profile of a bomb found in one of the anarchists’ homes was unlike any commercial metal but was similar in composition to a piece of shrapnel cut from the body of a slain police officer. So overwhelming was the evidence against one of the defendants that his lawyers even admitted that their client spent the afternoon before the Haymarket rally building bombs, arguing that he was acting in self-defense.
So I removed the line about there being “no evidence” and provided a full explanation in Wikipedia’s behind-the-scenes editing log. Within minutes my changes were reversed. The explanation: “You must provide reliable sources for your assertions to make changes along these lines to the article.”
Parenthetically, as an undergraduate history major, for a couple of semesters I did some primary research at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin (fun stuff, actually, flipping through memos and hand written notes from various players in the LBJ administration – too bad I didn’t turn my research into a book), but in those golden oldie days Wikipedia didn’t even exist.
Interesting discussion with Professor Timothy Messer-Kruse regarding the Haymarket Riot and subsequent trials, and his effort to alter Wikipedia. Too bad his book is currently selling for $73 (!!), or I’d buy a copy.
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I’m Neal Conan in Washington. Wikipedia is both ubiquitous and irreplaceable, the go-to source for quick information on almost every topic imaginable. The online encyclopedia is written and edited by volunteers. Anybody can send in a new entry or update an old one, except sometimes they can’t.
Case in point: Professor Timothy Messer-Kruse, perhaps the world’s foremost expert on Chicago’s Haymarket riot and the trials that followed, Wikipedia repeatedly rejected his repeated efforts to remove information he knew to be wrong. We’ll find out why in just a moment.
…Timothy Messer-Kruse joins us, a professor at Bowling Green State University, the author of “The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists.” He wrote about his experience with Wikipedia in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and he joins us from a studio in Perrysville, Ohio, and nice to have you with us today.
MESSER-KRUSE: Well, I tried to change what I thought was the most glaring inaccuracy in the page on the Haymarket. The page described the actual Haymarket bombing. It described the eight-hour movement leading to it. It described the trial that came from that event.
And in that article, the description of the trial began, saying the prosecution did not offer evidence connecting any of the defendants with the bombing. Well, my research has all been about showing what exactly went on in the trial, and there was an overwhelming amount of evidence. Now maybe it’s not evidence that we today would find worthy of convicting these men and sending them to the gallows, but there was undoubtedly multiple kinds of evidence.
There was 118 witnesses called to testify, many of them involved in the anarchist movement themselves. There was forensic, chemical evidence. There was even some embarrassed admissions on the part of some of the defendants. So I thought that description in particular needed to be changed.
And I tried to simply delete that reference, and when I did so, within minutes, that page was restored, and I was instructed by whoever this volunteer editor was about some of Wikipedia’s ongoing policies that prevented my making these changes.
CONAN: And you tried it again, and basically what they said was they don’t rely on primary sources like transcripts of the trial but rather on the preponderance of secondary sources.
MESSER-KRUSE: That’s right. So I was told that I needed to come up with some published sources that supported my point of view. Simply referencing the coroner’s records or the trial transcripts or other sources that I’d uncovered was not sufficient.
So I actually bided my time. I knew that my own published book would be coming out in 2011. So I tried again and was told that I needed to represent a majority viewpoint, not a minority viewpoint, namely my own, and that Wikipedia was about verifiability, not necessarily about truth.
And if my account may have been truthful, the majority view still has to be represented on Wikipedia’s website because it needs to be verifiable, it needs to represent what is the majority opinion.
It is a big flaw with Wikipedia, actually. Primary sources are not respected, and sometimes Wikipedia editors are not open to accepting changes. For one small example, Steve Jobs was a fruitarian, but the editors of Steve Jobs Wikipedia page constantly delete any reference to this. I’ve added citations from Walter Isaacson’s book, as have other people, but since these citations are based upon primary sources that Mr. Isaacson interviewed, there is currently no mention of Steve Jobs being a Fruitarian on his biography page. Minor, but telling.
Haymarket Riot Memorial
One final excerpt, which also echoes my experience attempting to edit a Wikipedia page:
CONAN: Timothy Messer-Kruse, I wanted to go back to you. Given what your – you’ve experienced and what you’ve learned about this process, what might you suggest as an improvement?
MESSER-KRUSE: Well, I think one thing is to make new contributors more aware of sort of the Wikipedia culture because I think one of the obstacles I ran into was that I was too easily deterred from trying to persist and make these changes, although I, you know, I try it a dozen times over two years. I sort of gave up after I was scolded and told to look at the civility policy at one point. At one point, I was branded a vandal for trying to change a page after someone had changed it back. And I kind of slunk away. And in the last week, I’ve been reading some of the comments to my article and some people have been suggesting that I was not persistent enough. So it seems like a catch-22. Either you persist and resist against these policies and accusations, or you don’t. In academia, of course, if I submit an article to an editor and I get it returned to me and rejected, I don’t then call up the editor and yell at them and insist that it be published. I just go somewhere else. So there’s that difference in culture, I think, that maybe many academics like myself would find an obstacle to really contributing.