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,
Stacy

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.

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