The New York Times may be in dire, and well-documented, financial straits but it is still the reigning King of Media. Look no further than the latest development over how the Times managed to keep the kidnapping of Times reporter David Rohde‘s off Wikipedia.
A few weeks ago, after the story of Rohde’s escape burned across the Internets, Bill Keller conducted of media blitz of sorts to explain that the Times had worked with editors across the board, including NPR, Gawker, and E&P to keep Rohde’s kidnapping under wraps. Editors everywhere, including Gawker complied.
Wikipedia is another beast altogether. Each subject is open to public editing and breaking news often appears there before it is picked up anywhere else (to the continuing chagrin of the MSM). Fortunately(!) founder Jimmy Wales was more than happy to comply with Keller’s request that Rohde’s entry remain free of any mention of his kidnapping and appears to have gone to some lengths to ensure news of the capture remained off.
A dozen times, user-editors posted word of the kidnapping on Wikipedia’s page on Mr. Rohde, only to have it erased. Several times the page was frozen, preventing further editing — a convoluted game of cat-and-mouse that clearly angered the people who were trying to spread the information of the kidnapping.
Even so, details of his capture cropped up time and again, however briefly, showing how difficult it is to keep anything off the Internet — even a sentence or two about a person who is not especially famous.
The sanitizing was a team effort, led by Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, along with Wikipedia administrators and people at The Times. In an interview, Mr. Wales said that Wikipedia’s cooperation was not a given.
“We were really helped by the fact that it hadn’t appeared in a place we would regard as a reliable source,” he said. “I would have had a really hard time with it if it had.”
But it doesn’t end there. Rohde’s wiki pages was also skewed towards appeasing a certain slice of readership, namely his Muslim captors. This from Michael Moss, an investigative reporter at the Times and friend of Mr. Rohde who edited the page two days after Rohde’s capture back in November of last year to “emphasize his work that could be seen as sympathetic to Muslims”:
“I knew from my jihad reporting that the captors would be very quick to get online and assess who he was and what he’d done, what his value to them might be…I’d never edited a Wikipedia page before.”
This brave new world of media is tricky business. Similar to this weekend’s outrage over Nico Pitney’s ‘planted’ question at the White House press conference (the question was great, the path that led to it questionable), it is less the specifics of this one case that concern — it’s hard to argue that Wiki should have allowed Rohde info to be posted if indeed it was putting his life at risk — than the possible long-term ramifications. Does this amount to censorship? Should the New York Times have this much control over the free flow of information in other places? What if it had been another publication making this sort of requeat, would they have been shown the same level of deference? And perhaps most importantly! Should the public at large be placing so much power in the hands of a open sourced encyclopedia that is ultimately controlled by one man?
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