A noisy close

In the last couple of weeks, a disagreement between author Philip Roth and Wikipedia has become notably public. Roth disputed part of a Wikipedia entry that included what some reviewers had said about the possible inspiration for The Human Stain, a Roth novel. As the author, Roth wanted his view used instead.

Dissatisfied with Wikipedia's response, Roth turned to the New Yorker to post "An open letter to Wikipedia", in which he claimed (at some length) that the site was unwilling to correct an error of fact. Roth's open letter was then reported on by a range of organizations, including:

Most of the coverage accepted Roth at his word and reported that only after his New Yorker post did Wikipedia "relent" and correct the error. This led to some of the usual handwringing by traditional media, who voiced renewed concern about the veracity of crowdsourced content. A subset echoed Roth's wish that he serve as the primary authority on his own work.

The coverage prompted a detailed rebuttal from a U.K.-based blogger who works with the Wikimedia Foundation. Writing for himself, quonimus explained how Roth was not complaining about a claim made by Wikipedia, but objecting to its reporting on an observation made by others. The entry that Roth disliked also included a reference to a prior interview in which Roth denied that the reviewers' observation had any merit.

Quonimus also does an effective job explaining why Wikipedia requires secondary sources: its entries are based on publicly available information, not private claims.

It's easy to imagine what would happen if everyone who had "authority" and an axe to grind petitioned Wikipedia to change the reporting, because they preferred it that way. Imagine what the second Bush administration would have to say about Wikipedia's coverage of the invasion of Iraq.

Interestingly, Roth himself provides the best argument for sticking with Wikipedia on this one. In 2008, Roth was interviewed by a Bloomberg reporter who asked "Is Coleman Silk, the black man who willfully passes as white in The Human Stain, based on anyone you knew?" Roth replies:

"No. There was much talk at the time that he was based on a journalist and writer named Anatole Broyard. I knew Anatole slightly, and I didn't know he was black. Eventually there was a New Yorker article describing Anatole's life written months and months after I had begun my book. So, no connection."

As quonimus points out, this is the interview that Wikipedia linked to in the entry that Roth found objectionable.

Four years later, blogging at the New Yorker, Roth has this to say:

"The Human Stain was inspired, rather, by an unhappy event in the life of my late friend Melvin Tumin, professor of sociology at Princeton for some thirty years."

At least one of these "authoritative" answers by Philip Roth is not correct. History will probably not change much based on the real answer, but I think it's good that this disagreement became public. It shows that the era of quiet deals on the flow of information might be drawing to a noisy close.

*I found myself wondering if this is the only time Fox News has covered something to do with Philip Roth.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.