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Truth vs. authority

This article appears in the issue March 2006 (100 Companies) [Volume 15, Issue 3]


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If you visit the article on "conservativism" at Wikipedia, you'll see--at least as of this writing--a strong warning at the top, complete with a graphic of a hand warning you to stop:

"The neutrality of this article is disputed. Please see discussion on the talk page."

In fact, if you go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia you'll find a list of Wikipedia's English language metadata messages that warn users that an article is suspected to be a hoax, needs to be cleaned up past a particular point in the text, contains facts that are in dispute, that it appears to contradict another article or even that it appears to contradict itself.

It is a fascinating list of ways in which articles may not be trustworthy. And, of course, those weaknesses are not confined to Wikipedia. Half of what I hear on cable news makes me want to slap a warning on it saying that it is outlandishly one-sided ... and the other half makes me want to label it as trivial beyond belief.

The question is why we don't see these warnings in newspapers and especially in newspaper archives. We do occasionally get a correction in the famous correction boxes placed at some spot of least visibility, and some papers are starting to place corrections on the same Web page as the erroneous article. But the one warning box Wikipedia doesn't often need is precisely the one that issues a correction: If you see something wrong in an article in Wikipedia, why warn about it when you could just fix it? The Wikipedia warnings are about weaknesses in articles that can't easily be fixed.

Imagine a newspaper or a news magazine that did indeed borrow Wikipedia's warnings and started noting that the neutrality of some of their stories is disputed or that there isn't agreement about the facts. We know that's the case with many stories in the mainstream media, because it's true of just about anything that humans write down. But it's unthinkable that the mainstream media would provide those warnings. Why not?

Because it puts the mainstream media in a conflict between truth and authority. We all know that truth is elusive, especially when it comes to interpreting human events. But acknowledging that would weaken the mainstream media's authority. We wouldn't trust the media as much. And ultimately, authority, not truth, is what the media sell us. Frequently, even usually, the two coincide. But every time the media are embarrassed about being shown wrong, we see how important authority is to them. It is vital to the media's "value proposition" that we believe the motto they all have in common: "If you read it here, you can trust it because we get things right."

There's a certain institutionalized arrogance to that. It's not that journalists are arrogant. In my experience, that's actually rarely the case. Journalists, like librarians, aren't in it for the money. They're trying to create an informed citizenry. And they know the limits of their knowledge. But the media as an institution is not nearly as humble. It's in the media's economic interest to believe they are above the law that says that all human interpretation--including reportage and other ways to tell stories--is grounded in human interest, perception, habits, value, culture, language and history.

It's certainly not the case that Wikipedia is perfect. Far from it. And we need professional, trained, committed journalists more than ever. But it would be in everyone's interest if we had more truth and less authority, more humility and less institutional arrogance.


David Weinberger edits "The Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization", e-mail self@evident.com.