Essjay’s Third Transgression

My 60 Second saga of Wikipedia introduced Essjay and the false story he told The New Yorker. He was accused, at best, of being deceitful and, at worst, a liar. A new third revelation sadly points to the latter. And it gives me no joy to report on the latest and most serious issue.

Essjay makes an outrageous claim against the reporter in this controversy that cannot go unaddressed. (This claim is talked about extensively in special episode 12 of the Wikipedia Weekly podcast talking about the Essjay incident, but is detailed below.)

As March started, the crisis broke and the community was buzzing. After a few days of silence, Essjay responded with a single brief message. Many felt it was not contrite, sounding more like a classic conditional “political apology”:

I *am* sorry if anyone in the Wikipedia community has been hurt by my decision to use disinformation to protect myself. [...]

I have no intention of going anywhere, because to do so would be to let the vandals, trolls, and stalkers win. [ref]

But what instantly struck me, and only a few others it seems, was his second paragraph. It is an alarming charge. Essjay bemoaned Stacy Schiff, the reporter who interviewed and wrote about him:

That she chose to focus on two rather trivial reverts to Justin Timberlake and what my userpage said came as a complete surprise to me; it was, quite honestly, my impression that it was well known that I was not who I claimed to be, and that in the absence of any confirmation, no respectible publication would print it.

I did not have an advance copy of the article, and indeed, didn’t even get the complimentary print copy that others were given when it was published; I asked Stacy to send it to the Foundation for thier use instead. Further, she made several offers to compensate me for my time, and my response was that if she truly felt the need to do so, she should donate to the Foundation instead. (Emphasis mine)

Read that last sentence again. This is an accusation of the highest degree to make about a journalist. Paying a source for a story is an absolute no-no in the normal practice of print journalism. And it struck me immediately how incredible it was he would accuse Stacy Schiff, a Pulitzer Prize winning author writing for The New Yorker, of this crime. We either have a serious breach of ethics with Ms. Schiff or another dubious statement claim from Essjay (nee Ryan Jordan).

When I contacted Ms. Schiff about this, she went on the record, succinct and emphatic:

This is complete nonsense.

All best,

There is a disturbing pattern by Essjay that has been escalated to not just embarrassing a reporter by snowing her in an interview, but by directly implying the reporter operated unethically. This is yet another, third outrageous claim by Essjay. We now know:

One, Essjay has used his false credentials to gain the upper hand internally in Wikipedia proceedings. Remember: Essjay’s explanation of record for using the false persona was to avoid “vandals, trolls, and stalkers.” But his fourth ever edit was in 2005, already using the false credentials as a “tenured professor” to end debate.

This is a text I often require for my students, and I would hang my own Ph.D. on it’s credibility. [ref]

Two, Essjay has misled about his identity to a mainstream media reporter and fact checker on the phone, by voice. It takes a certain pathology to lie by voice on the phone to another human being, knowing it will show up in print. His defensive online persona argument no longer holds water. This is an external credibility problem — does the Wikipedia community’s accept such behavior from one of their own as representation to the outside world. Additionally, there is now evidence he contacted academics representing Wikipedia with his false credentials.

Before a print magazine made it public, academics were the victim too. Essjay described how he addressed “fellow” professors with a form letter stating his credentials on behalf of Wikipedia:

I’ve contacted a few professors after other Wikipedians have pointed out that the instructor made the “Wikipedia is not a reliable source” argument to students who were, in fact, Wikipeidans. I have a copy of my form response at User:Essjay/Letter. When I was head of my department, I certainly would have taken knowledge of such conduct into consideration, and I think similarly minded department heads/deans would as well. [ref]

The letter, which may or may not have ever been sent, stated:

I am also a tenured professor of theology; feel free to have a look at my Wikipedia userpage (linked below) to gain an idea of my background and credentials. [ref]

This is now an internal crisis of confidence. What company does the community keep? What happens when after assuming good faith, we discover the depths of betrayal go this deep? The Wikipedia community is notoriously full of touchy-feely assume good faith WikiLove and quick to forgive.

But this latest third episode adds a whole new dimension.

He has now accused Schiff of unethical conduct, entering into the dangerous domain of defamation and libel and directly affecting the reputation of a working journalist. Is he ready to stand up and be accountable for his story, or will he leave a reckless statement sitting on the Talk page?

(While Essjay did reply to previous questions from me, he did not respond to requests for comment on this issue.)

Who do we believe — a respected reporter or proven prevaricator Essjay/Ryan Jordan?

There are few plausible explanations other than this — in an attempt to portray himself as a sympathetic character (“See, I didn’t even want the money Stacy Schiff was offering to me. I directed it to the Foundation”) he inadvertantly stumbled into accusing a reporter of things a reporter should never do.

It’s a serious charge against Essjay, and it saddens me to make it.

Full disclosure: Andrew Lih has been an assistant professor of journalism for three years and has worked in the field of journalism for over a decade. He has also been a Wikipedian as User:Fuzheado for four years.

49 thoughts on “Essjay’s Third Transgression

  1. A significant portion of the Wikipedia community is appalled at Essjay’s fabrications, especially that they involved Ms. Schiff and the professor.

    For more on the community reaction:

    And a “straw poll” done:

    Jimmy Wales has been in remote parts of India, so was not fully aware of everything. He has since made a statement, asked Essjay to step down from “positions of trust”, and apologized to the community.

  2. Congrats on your fine and devastating article. Essjay has just pulled the plug on himself, and I suspect this expose on his libel of Ms. Schiff is what drove the final nail home. Hat’s off to you!

  3. Considering the tone in which it was written, I suspect the answer is just as you hypothesize: Essjay made up a lie to make himself look good, and — not knowing much about journalism — didn’t realise that this would constitue unethical behaviour on the reporter’s part, if true. At least he (probably) wasn’t deliberately trying to malign her.

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  5. Essjay is a liar and for the rest of his life he will be remembered as the Admin as Wikipedia that told a whopper.

    I think administrators need to go through an in-depth security check. Some could be criminals, child molesters…who knows !!

    Best to be sure !

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  7. Fuz — this is one of the better analyses of the issue that I’ve seen; thanks for making it. While I did read the apology you quote when it came out, I didn’t grasp the full implications of what he was saying about the reporter (it mainly just sounded whiny to me). I suspect most non-journalists didn’t catch it either.

    The whole thing is pretty damn unfortunate, though what I hope will come of it is a serious discussion of what it means to be an expert, and how we really treat and evaluate reputations on Wikipedia — with implications of course for reputation in online communities generally. It was quite a social experiment essjay managed to pull off; it’s unfortunate that he was compelled to do it in the first place and for so long.

    – phoebe/brassratgirl.

  8. Phoebe and all,

    It is indeed a lesson the community has learned from. The community is already re-evaluating policies for folks with the most trusted tools.

    I suppose a situation like this was inevitable given the openness and assumption of good faith. The community is strong enough to punch through the fallout. I’m sure of it.

  9. It seems most likely to me she offered to pay his phone expenses & he mistated this as his time, not realizing the significance of the difference. It would be useful if you could ask her if she did offer to pay his phone costs.

  10. While I would love to believe the accusation of unethical conduct was no more than a misunderstanding, it’s hard to do so.

    In fact, I have difficulty believing any offer was made which could be misunderstood. I instead lean toward the unpleasant assumption Mr. Jordan fabricated the issue.

    Not because of “prior bad acts” but on the face value of the facts and some common experience with human behavior which is no greater than anyone elses.

    It is not reasonable to believe a journalist who is employed by a fairly credible media outlet, who is working on a (initially) non-controversial piece, and who could easily obtain source material from an eager gallery of wikipedians at no charge, would sacrifice her reputation and career by paying for the interview.

    If Mr. Jordan had the inside track on “yellow cake evidence planting” or similar and was the sole source of the information, I might put more credence in the accusation. Wikipedia is great, but as a journalism subject it is not “Watergate”.

    As to the human experience comment, I will only ask how many of us have encountered the scenario of someone in hot water attempting to redirect scrutiny by claiming “Yeah, but he/she is sleeping with Terry from accounting!”

  11. Essjay’s Response Soon After The Controversy Broke Out!

    I would like to clear up an oversight on my part. I was, until this morning, under the impression that in my initial post on this subject (in response to a question from Dev920 made some weeks ago) I had made an apology for anyone who felt they were hurt by my decision to use misinformation. In speaking to various different people, including Jimbo, I did make it known that I was sorry that anyone felt hurt by my actions, and I believed I had done so in my initial statement. On re-reading that, I find I did not; it was a rather lengthy statement I had been thinking about for some time, and I seem to have left out a rather critical element of it. So, I rectify that now, with further apologies that it was not included originally, as I pointed people back to that statement in the belief it was complete.

    I *am* sorry if anyone in the Wikipedia community has been hurt by my decision to use disinformation to protect myself. I’m not sorry that I protected myself; I believed, and continue to believe, that I was right to protect myself, in light of the problems encountered on the internet in these trying times. I have spoken to all of my close friends here about this, and have heard resoundingly that they understand my position, and they support me. Jimbo and many others in Wikipedia’s hierarchy have made thier support known as well. I’m also sorry the New Yorker chose to print what they did about me; there seems to be a belief that I knew they were going to print it, and that is not the case. I spoke with Stacy Shiff for over eight hours; in that time, she asked me about a variety of subjects related to Wikipedia and I have her much to write on. (Those who know me will know I am rarely ever brief in my comments.) That she chose to focus on two rather trivial reverts to [[Justin Timberlake]] and what my userpage said came as a complete surprise to me; it was, quite honestly, my impression that it was well known that I was not who I claimed to be, and that in the absence of any confirmation, no respectible publication would print it. I did not have an advance copy of the article, and indeed, didn’t even get the complimentary print copy that others were given when it was published; I asked Stacy to send it to the Foundation for thier use instead. Further, she made several offers to compensate me for my time, and my response was that if she truly felt the need to do so, she should donate to the Foundation instead.

    For two years, I have poured my life into making this site a better place. That many people feel hurt by my decision pains me greatly, and to them I am genuinely sorry. To the stalkers, the trolls, and the vandals, I am not sorry; they are abusive, hateful people, and they have done far worse things than those whole of the Wikipeida Community, myself included, have ever thought about doing. Now, I am going back to what I have always done: Making Wikipedia a better place. (In the immediate present, I’m going to bed, as I’ve been up for quite a long time.) Tonight, I will be back to my normal routine: Blocking vandals, closing RFAs, tending to the mailing lists, etc. I have no intention of going anywhere, because to do so would be to let the vandals, trolls, and stalkers win.

    I have no doubt that others will continue to debate this matter; I have no intention to say anything further, as I have made my statement complete. If anyone needs me, look where the work of keeping the encyclopedia running is being done, and you’ll probably find me there. [[User:Essjay|'''Essjay''']] [[User talk:Essjay|(Talk)]] 16:06, 1 March 2007 (UTC)

    Here is the website address below to verify the text:

  12. Go to talk page of jimbo wells, there are people still praising Essjay for his good edits. And There are people who are threatening to ban anybody who wrote against Essjay, and accusing them of trolling.

    To me it seems People at Wikipedia are just a bunch of liars.

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  15. Ah, Essjay, the KING of CONS is finally dethroned. I wonder if Ryan Jordan is actually his real name… who knows, he might have lied about that too!

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