Should you edit your boss’ Wikipedia article?

The IP block associated with congressional offices has been banned off and on from editing Wikipedia, due to a large percentage of dubious edits that attempt to clean up a Congressperson’s image, or smear political opponents.

This has raised a question: Should people with vested interests edit articles?

Absolutely not. And lack of a foolproof way to keep them from doing that is one reason it’s not a reliable source.

I’m no longer a top-1,000 Wikipedian–I just don’t have time anymore to visit every day–but I’ve made a lot of contributions there, and while the quality of what I’ve put there isn’t always as high as I would like, I do believe I did the best I could with the information available to me at the time, and I believe I was as objective as I could be.

For example, when writing about my church body, I wrote as objectively as I possibly could. I loved my church, but I was able to separate myself from that and write about its good points and its bad points. Now that my feelings about that church body more closely resemble my feelings about the girls I dated and didn’t marry–the primary difference being that I’m willing to admit the girls I didn’t marry have one or two good points–I stay out of it.

The goal of Wikipedia has always been to be as neutral as possible. Since neutrality is usually impossible unless you’re writing about something like Groundhog Day, the next-best thing is to present as many sides of the story as possible. So that means you don’t remove voting records, and you don’t make excuses like, “Well, if they didn’t want it to be edited, why did they make it editable?”

Wikipedia answered that question, of course, when they blocked that range of IP addresses. You play by the rules, or you stay out.

Having strong feelings about something doesn’t necessarily kill the article, however. It’s impossible to write something interesting when you have no interest in the subject yourself. But you can’t let the emotions completely control you. When I wrote about the Commodore 64, for instance, I had to be willing to admit the machine’s shortcomings–or at least not delete them when someone else did. It’s enough to say that the machine sold more than 20 million units, stayed in production for 10 years, and offered 16-color graphics and the ability to play three independent sounds at once at a time when most competing machines could only play one sound at a time and many could only do 4-color graphics. Obviously if the machine didn’t have something going for it, 19,999,999 other people wouldn’t have bought one.

But there’s nothing particularly scandalous about the C-64. Yes, its disk drive was slow and could be unreliable, especially if you got stuck with one of the early ones. But that controversy is 20 years old and nobody really cares anymore.

I also have strong feelings for the Lionel Corporation, because some of my favorite childhood memories involve one of its products. Did you know that Lionel had ties to Senator Joseph McCarthy? Really. Roy Cohn, the company’s second owner, was a lawyer and a political ally of McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover who prosecuted the Rosenbergs, among other things.

Cohn’s connection to the company wasn’t its finest hour by a long shot, and I’m sure current ownership would like to distance itself from that. Most “authorized” histories of Lionel mention Cohn but gloss over him, mentioning only that Cohn was Joshua L. Cowen’s great nephew, and that the company lost a lot of money with Cohn at the helm. They don’t mention Cohn’s earlier career, or what he did later in life.

And if you’re writing a book about Lionel, arguably that’s irrelevant. But when you’re writing something encyclopedic, and the person is historically significant for something else, you mention it. You can’t cover up potentially embarrassing facts and remain objective.

And what if the person is still living and the negatives in an objective biography outweigh the positives?

Then rather than covering up the past, the person ought to dedicate some energy towards accomplishing something positive that will outweigh those negatives.

I’d hate to think what would happen if that became the norm in Washington. We’d be living a dream.

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