Who I feel sorry for in the Wikipedia mess: the journalist

While lots of people have been weighing in on the pros and cons (mostly con – actually I’m not sure there are any pros at all to it) of the Ryan Jordan (aka Essjay) affair, where someone pretended to be a tenured professor of theology so he could big up his credentials on Wikipedia, and then got quoted in the New Yorker, nobody seems to be wondering what it’s like for Stacy Schiff, the writer who got bamboozled.

Since she’s a Pulitzer Prize-winner (that is, received the highest award in American factual journalism) one might have expected Schiff to have nosed out someone’s deceit over a total of six hours of interviewing. But no; and the same for the fact-checker who spent two hours on the phone checking, well, facts. (Of course at the moment we only have Jordan’s word on the six and two hours, so it might have been minutes; or even imaginary. Or on email, which is a less precise medium.)

The reality is though that if someone is intent on deceiving you and adept enough at making up their story, they will fool even an excellent journalist. (And, ahem, the less good ones too.)

You just know how it will be. She’ll come into the offfice feeling crap, and people will be going “Hi Stacy!” and she’ll smile back and then when she’s gone past they’ll raise their eyebrows at each other and blow their cheeks out and shake their heads, and she’ll be walking past and out of sight muttering under her breath and furious as hell with that little git who thought it would be fun to take the piss.

It’s really not fun when you’re taken for a ride. In journalism, it tends to be more visible than in other professions, I think. And especially now with the web, it tends to persist more too – in Google’s cache even if things are tweaked invisibly. (The Guardian doesn’t allow “invisible mending”; if we make a mistake, the changes on the website are left visible.)

So, hey, think of Stacy. Actually, it’s still a really good article. You just have to discount the stuff involving Essjay, or whatever.

1 Comment

  1. The other point in this case is that the New Yorker prided itself for decades on never making a mistake. Even now, I think you hardly ever even found a typo. The first time in my lifetime that a mistake was found it was “honored” in a cartoon in the Philadelphia Inquierer – Eustace with a Pinnochio nose.

    So to have bamboozled a New Yorker journalist is particularly shocking – and, for the hoaxer, gratifying. I’m sure that’s contributed to the noise about it.


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