SINCE 1759

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Land of the Freely Gullible
Hoaxes and Slander From Mencken to Wikipedia

For fun, and to “make bearable the intolerable libido of the war for democracy,” H.L. Mencken in 1917 wrote an entirely fake but hilarious history of the bathtub. Newspapers ran it, most of them as it was intended. Many readers didn’t take it that way, thinking the history absolutely truthful. Some newspapers started citing it as such, and Mencken’s so-called facts, he subsequently wrote, “got into learned journals and the transactions of learned societies. They were alluded to on the floor of Congress” until he took it on himself to debunk his own hoax. (We should be so lucky with hoax-peddlers in this latest “war for democracy.”) Gullibility and critical illiteracy, in other words, have always been part of America’s libido.

John Seigenthaler is a 78-year-old retired journalist and founder of Vanderbilt University’s Freedom Forum First Amendment Center. He was also an administrative assistant for Robert Kennedy in the early 1960s and a pallbearer at RFK’s funeral. Recently on Wikipedia, the free, online encyclopedia written by anyone who chooses to contribute, Seigenthaler found himself slandered. Whoever wrote the piece claimed Seigenthaler had once lived in the Soviet Union and was briefly thought to have been involved in both Kennedy assassinations. Seigenthaler then found the same minibiography posted on the sort of quick-hit online information drizzlers like

After a good bit of infuriating effort, Seigenthaler managed to have the slanders erased from the three Web sites. His recent account in USA Today, where he used to work, reflects the sort of effort that increasingly devours energy and time and defies courtesy as we try—with billing departments, insurance companies, human resource departments, governments and other repositories of our lives in ones and zeroes—to fix the errors committed by the very database technologies supposedly designed to make our lives easier.

But Seigenthaler didn’t just want a cleanup job. He wanted to find the author of the slander and get redress. He got no satisfaction. He was not able to trace down anything more than a vague Internet address. Nor does the Web-based technology that entombs identity allow such trace-downs, at least not by people not privy to the FBI’s new Albanian police powers. What if Seigenthaler had been successful? Would his power and means to retaliate be more defensible or desirable than the ability of an anonymous cretin to slander someone online? I don’t think so.

Getting slandered by the sort of “wiki” or blogish world where standards are known to be low, unregulated, arbitrary, is not like getting slandered from, say, an established newspaper, a branded Web site, even a low-wattage radio station. A fool slandering Seigenthaler on Wikipedia is not unlike a fool slandering him in a crowded subway car, with this difference: More people would be exposed to the slander in a subway car than online—unless Seigenthaler imagines himself (for all his sparkling credentials) the sort of man whose name provokes strangers into fits of online searching sessions. Not likely. To give anyone the means to search out a needler in a stack of anonymity, and the power to prosecute that needler, would radically up-end and muffle the sort of “free press, free speech and free spirit” to which Seigenthaler’s First Amendment Forum is dedicated.

The problem here is not the slander per se; Seigenthaler managed to erase it from the Web’s memory only to, ironically, enshrine it in the permanence of USA Today’s archives, the hundreds of newspapers and online forums and blogolic dead zones that are publishing the story or commenting on it. The problem is the pitiful inability of average readers to make a distinction between the credible and the idiotic, between the equivalent of bellows on a subway platform and slightly more elevated discourse above ground—between silly slanders in places rimmed with red flags and more certifiable information in credible media. The solution is not more regulation or the draconian sort of track-down powers Seigenthaler seems to want.

Raising the threshold of libel and slander law, not lowering it, is the better answer; that and educating our illiterate hordes better in the basic skill of telling the difference between bull and verifiable information. These occasional slanders are the price to pay for more openness. Critical reading may be the lost cause of the Internet age, but Mencken’s bathtub hoax reminds us that it’s nothing new.

Anyone with a grain of sense knows not to read Wikipedia-like sources with complete trust. But anyone looking to regulate these sources is, intellectually anyway, a worse offender than Seigenthaler’s slanderer, because the end result would be a gated community of ideas. We have enough gates going up all over the place to suffer them in one of the last places—in the proverbial marketplace of ideas—where gates ought to have no hinges.



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