Essjay Departure, Questions Remain for The New Yorker

It gives me no pleasure to relate this, but the saga has come to a conclusion for now: user Essjay has left Wikipedia and his recent position at Wikia.com.

It appears the immediate community crisis has ended, but there are still aftershocks. The New York Times published an article Monday that gives a good summary of the affair. But most importantly, an official response from The New Yorker is surprisingly inadequate at first glance, given its stellar reputation for fact checking. From the article:

In an e-mail message on Friday, The New Yorker’s deputy editor, Pamela Maffei McCarthy, said: “We were comfortable with the material we got from Essjay because of Wikipedia’s confirmation of his work and their endorsement of him. In retrospect, we should have let our readers know that we had been unable to corroborate Essjay’s identity beyond what he told us.”

It is not clear what “Wikipedia’s confirmation” refers to. Since Wikipedia is a community of indvidual editors and not a monolithic top-down organization, it may be referring to looking up information contained in the web site’s pages. But personal information is entirely voluntary, and does not go through the “wiki” method of checking and editing.

Alternatively, this “Wikipedia’s confirmation” may refer to the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation offices in Florida, but the organization in itself does not have any confirmation of the real identity of its online users, and has been consistent in stressing it only recommended users to talk to. (Full comment below)

In the end, it is the responsibility of the respected magazine to vouch for their story and sources, in this case an individual editor of Wikipedia.

“What he told us”

The ultimate question then: did the New Yorker ever ask Essjay for his real-life name for verification of the facts? Given their vaunted reputation for meticulous fact checking, this is an important question.

  • If he did provide a name, did they look up the information? What did they find?
  • If he did not provide a name, how could they run with the story with unverified basic facts about a main character, given they were fact checking meticulously about items like the number of “hits per second” to the Web site, the start date of the three revert rule and the male/female percentages in the community?

I’m troubled they put the onus on “Wikipedia’s confirmation of his work and their endorsement of him.” This appears to be a questionable characterization of the fact checking procedure in this case.

Danny Wool of the Wikimedia Foundation, point person handling interactions with the magazine, indicated the nonprofit organization could not have been part of such an “endorsement”:

I suggested several names for interviews, along with the known background stories of these editors and a brief summary of their work. In suggesting Essjay to Stacy [Schiff] as one of these possible interview candidates… I stated that one of the appealing things about his story was the extreme anonymity. I also stated that he had turned down requests for interviews in the past, and that I was not sure he would agree. I was not asked about Essjay at all by the fact checker (name omitted) who contacted me and discussed the other points of the article at length.

So it seems we still have an unresolved issue of what The New Yorker meant by their statement. I look forward to hearing a more detailed explanation.

Note: A request for clarification has been sent to The New Yorker deputy editor Ms. McCarthy. Any followups to this will be posted here.

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. He is currently writing a book about Wikipedia.

7 thoughts on “Essjay Departure, Questions Remain for The New Yorker

  1. I’m a bit frustrated by the attitude a lot of Wikipedians seem to have now that, with Essjay gone, the crisis is over and we should all get back to work (although I’m confident that this is not what Andrew meant in this blog post). Very little of this is about Essjay personally. He did some things he shouldn’t have done; if this had stayed in-house and Essjay now came clean and apologised, I don’t think there would be much to talk about. What’s more interesting and important is how the situation was handled by Wikipedia: What, if any, blame belongs to people other than Essjay? Did Jimbo’s response to the public relations damage help the situation or hurt? Should Essjay have been appointed to the Arbitration Committee? How should we think about these issues in the future? I don’t think those questions have been settled at all.

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  3. If (and only if) Stacy engaged in dodgy practices for this story, then she’s probably done so for other stories, and might do so in future stories.

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