By Katharine Q. Seelye
The New York Times
It started as a joke and ended up as a shot heard round the Internet,
with the joker quitting his job and Wikipedia, the online
encyclopedia, suffering a blow to its credibility.
A man in Nashville, Tenn., has admitted that, in trying to shock a
colleague with a joke, he put false information into a Wikipedia entry
about John Seigenthaler Sr., a former editor of The Tennessean
newspaper in Nashville.
Brian Chase, 38, who until Friday was an operations manager at a small
delivery company, told Seigenthaler he had written the material
suggesting Seigenthaler had been involved in the assassinations of
John and Robert Kennedy.
Seigenthaler discovered the false entry only recently and wrote about
it in an op-ed article in USA Today, saying he was especially annoyed
that he could not track down the perpetrator because of Internet
His plight touched off a debate about the reliability of information
on Wikipedia -- and by extension the Internet -- and the difficulty in
holding Web sites and their users accountable, even when someone is
In a letter to Seigenthaler, Chase said he thought that Wikipedia was
a "gag" Web site and that he had written the assassination tale to
shock a co-worker, who knew of the Seigenthaler family and its
illustrious history in Nashville.
"It had the intended effect," Chase said of his prank in an
interview. But Chase said that once he became aware through news
accounts of the damage he had done to Seigenthaler, he was remorseful
and scared of what might happen to him.
Chase also found that he was slowly being cornered in cyberspace,
thanks to the sleuthing efforts of Daniel Brandt, 57, of San Antonio,
Texas, who makes his living as a book indexer. Brandt has been a
frequent critic of Wikipedia and started an anti-Wikipedia Web site in
September after reading what he said was a false entry about himself.
Using information in Seigenthaler's article and some online tools,
Brandt traced the computer used to make the Wikipedia entry to the
delivery company in Nashville. Brandt called the company and told
employees about the Wikipedia problem but was not able to learn
Brandt then sent an e-mail message to the company, asking for
information about its courier services. A response bore the same
Internet Protocol address that was left by the creator of the
Wikipedia entry, offering further evidence of a connection.
A call by a reporter to the delivery company Thursday made employees
nervous, they later told Seigenthaler. On Friday, Chase hand-delivered
a letter to Seigenthaler's office, confessing what he had done, and
they talked at length.
Wikipedia, a nonprofit venture that is the world's biggest
encyclopedia, is written and edited by thousands of volunteers, and
mistakes are expected to be caught by users.
Chase wrote: "I am truly sorry to have offended you, sir. Whatever
fame comes to me from this will be ill-gotten indeed."
Seigenthaler said he "was not after a pound of flesh" and would not take
Chase to court.
Chase resigned because, he said, he did not want to cause problems for
his company. Seigenthaler urged Chase's boss to rehire him, but Chase
said this had not happened.
Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center, said that as a
longtime advocate of free speech, he found it awkward to be tracking
down someone who had exercised that right. "I still believe in free
expression," he said. "What I want is accountability."
Copyright 2005 The Seattle Times Company
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
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