John Seigenthaler has a problem. He's had an illustrious career as a journalist, serving as editor and publisher of the Nashville Tennessean and helping to found USA Today. For a few years in the '60s, he worked as an administrative assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy. In 1991, he established the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center. Don't confuse him with his son, John Seigenthaler, Jr., of NBC News (who's taken to dropping the "Jr.").
Seigenthaler is prominent enough to rate a bio in Wikipedia. Unfortunately, very little of the information I just mentioned made it into the article. Instead, it included falsehoods such as this:
John Seigenthaler Sr. was the assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960's. For a brief time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven.
The bio had other inaccuracies, which Seigenthaler wrote about in USA Today on Wednesday. Seigenthaler ultimately was able to get the libelous statements removed in October, but they'd been on the site since May (they'd also been on Reference.com and Answers.com, which pick up Wikipedia material wholesale). Seigenthaler also related his attempts to find the person responsible for what he called the "false, malicious" information, attempts which mostly have hit dead ends.
Online response to the editorial has been intriguing. Noting that Wikipedia is an open-source resource to which anyone can add information or corrections, a number of commenters, such as can be found here or here, take Seigenthaler to task for not simply quietly correcting the article or at least adding corrections as a comment, as if being implicated in a presidential assassination is equal to suffering a misspelled name or incorrect date. They also seem to think that Seigenthaler wants to sue someone. As it happens, he can sue to possibly find the identity of the writer, so if that's what he wants, there's nothing stopping him. My reading of what Seigenthaler would like to accomplish is just to hold responsible those who are responsible.
At CNET, Charles Cooper raises an interesting question:
On your ride home today, try pondering a future where Wikipedia's model of competing versions of the truth becomes the norm. Will the increasing influence of the wisdom of the crowd force us to rethink the nature of knowledge? With the proliferation of the Internet, more voices inevitably will become part of that conversation.
Whether it gets that far or not, with truth shifting depending on who was the most recent poster on a particular Webpage, the implication of this episode is that we're all responsible for keeping information about ourselves accurate, no matter where it appears or where it comes from. It won't be long before Googling yourself moves from the realms of curiosity and hubris to one of self defense.
UPDATE--Seigenthaler writes in more detail in Sunday's Tennessean, and The New York Times weighs in, as well.