A Wikipedia oops? Or, a New Yorker oops?

Stephen Dubner points to the post-script editor’s note on this New Yorker magazine article (scroll to bottom) in which a Wikipedia administrator that was identified in the article as “a tenured professor of religion at a private university” with “a Ph.D. in theology and a degree in canon law” now turns out to be Ryan Jordan, a twenty-four-year-old who holds no advanced degrees and has never taught. Dubner, the author of Freakonomics, uses the incident to take jabs at both Wikipedia and the New Yorker writer.

Writes Dubner:

“For me, a more interesting question is the degree of (the writer’s) error: should she, e.g., have insisted on some verification of Essjay’s credentials, or at least omitted his academic claims. This illustrates, if nothing else, how journalists get lied to, pretty regularly.”

Good question, I agree. Historically, the New Yorker’s fact-checking department was considered the gold-standard of the magazine world. Perhaps Dubner’s question should be answered by the “Ask the Librarian” columnists over at the New Yorker-fan site, emdashes.com.

From the irony department: In doing a Google search for information about the fact-checking department at the New Yorker, I ran across this post from a blogger who wrote about the New Yorker’s article in great depth last July with such declarations as this, “The guarantee of truth that backs up New Yorker copy gives its content a much deeper impact.”

Bottomline lessons: 1. Students in the history department at Middlebury College should never cite the New Yorker in papers or other academic work. 2. The New Yorker is a gateway to facts, not a source of facts.

Disclosure: Still, I won’t be canceling my subscription anytime soon.

Update: Bonus links on this topic:

  • Chris Edwards (and a comment below).
  • Seth Finkelstein: “I’m tempted to go to certain A-listers and ask them, “NOW, with this blatant example right in front of you, do you understand my argument about what’s wrong with Wikipedia?”. But I know better, and in their way, I suspect they know better.”

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    • From a Talk archive of Essjay’s user page:

      “…My question is how the New Yorker hasn’t gotten its butt kicked for publishing it as fact without the slightest fact-checking. Night Gyr (talk/Oy) 03:45, 6 February 2007 (UTC)”

      “Actually, I did six hours of interviews with the reporter, and two with a fact checker, but I was really surprised that they were willing to do an interview with someone who they couldn’t confirm; I can only assume that it is proof I was doing a good job playing the part. Essjay (Talk) 05:25, 6 February 2007 (UTC)”

      We don’t know what the New Yorker did or didn’t do in relation to fact checking, but whatever they did it took a while. His report of eight hours of total interviewing is consistent with an earlier entry, so that seems consistent (ie might not actually be a lie).

      There are three possibilities. Essjay never did eight hours total of interview and the New Yorker – the full process wasn’t adhered to.

      The second is that the fact-checking process has a serious flaw or they allowed themselves to continue without him providing a real-world name. The guy’s hardly Deep Throat, so it seems unlikely.

      Which leaves the possibility he provided a name and enough background detail to convince the fact checkers. In which case, I don’t know what more the New Yorker’s people were meant to do, especially as this guy had been vouched for by other editors and the Wikipedia administration.

      I think it’s worth remembering that con artists who set out to con papers operate alone for the most part. They don’t have an organisation saying: “Talk to this guy, he’s a professor.”