How John Seigenthaler Changed Wikipedia

John Seigenthaler, the legendary editor of Nashville’s daily newspaper, The Tennessean, died yesterday (Friday, July 11, 2014) in his Nashville home. In addition to recounting his remarkable career in journalism and public service, an event nine years ago that’s now referred to by early contributors to Wikipedia as “the Wikipedia Seigenthaler incident” earned a paragraph in Mr. Seigenthaler’s New York Time’s obituary.

As a Nashvillian and admirer of Mr. Seigenthaler for decades, I was angered in 2005 by that thoughtless and vulgar prank that became one of the most controversial episodes in the early history of the online user-contributed encyclopedia. In hindsight, the prank and following events led to much needed changes by those who created and fostered the early development of Wikipedia.

Wikipedia policy changes related to the Seigenthaler incident

In the aftermath of the event, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, in December, 2005, removed the ability of unregistered users to create new pages on the English-language Wikipedia. According to Wikipedia’s entry on “the Role of Jimmy Wales,” the change was proposed as an “experiment,” but has been in place ever since.

The Seigenthaler incident, along with other abuses and misuses of Wikipedia biographical entries, also led to what is today called the “Biographies of Living Persons” policy. Such entries still are among the most contentious and controversial of Wikipedia entries as they serve as magnets for those who both love or hate the person (or get paid to edit the entry).  In Siegenthaler’s case, however, the controversy had nothing to do with debated facts–the entry was an abuse of Wikipedia and was abusive of Siegenthaler.

The legacy of the Seigenthaler incidient

When the controversy first came to light in 2005, I wrote a blog post titled, “Use Wikipedia as a Gateway to Facts, not a Source of Them.” That title reflects, still today, what even the Wikimedia Foundation advises. However, a decade later, Wikipedia has changed greatly. Very far from perfect, Wikipedia still has improved its policies and guidelines for what is acceptable, and not.  And today, on the majority of entries, you’ll find standardized citations that help lead to the source of claims made in the entry.

While the entire episode was heinous and cruel, it still serves as one more example, in a long lifetime of such examples, how John Seigenthaler’s commitment and determined fight for the truth has had, and will continue to have, a long and lasting positive legacy.

My sympathies, and appreciation for his contributions to the city of Nashville and to the country and world in which he lived, go to the Seigenthaler family. I had the privilege of having many chances to participate in conversations with him and to hear him speak many times. He was a giant.

(Photo: Curtis Palmer via Wikipedia)