This weekend, Tuned In Jr., who is studying Boston and the American Revolution in school, mentioned that he was getting a “locked” error message while trying to load a Wikipedia page on Paul Revere. I know! As a father and a journalist, I should know better than to let my son use Wikipedia as a primary source.
Fortunately, the news cycle intervened to give us a perfect object lesson, by providing a possible reason Revere’s page may have been in limbo: over the weekend, there was a war between Wikipedia editors and supporters of Sarah Palin who were trying to “fix” the entry to make it conform with Palin’s flubbed description of Revere’s ride.
Palin fumbled her elementary-school history on camera while visiting the Old North Church in Boston (see video above), rendering it as a ride in which Revere “warned the British” by “ringing those bells” and “send[ing] those warning shots and bells.”
Palin’s excruciating delivery will be familiar to anyone who was ever called on unprepared in class and gave a rambling answer, hoping against hope that if you just keep talking, somehow the right answer will materialize. Palin’s own explanation of the story, to Fox News’ Chris Wallace, will not surprise anyone who remembers her defense of her use of “refudiate” as not a malapropism but intentional wordplay in the manner of Shakespeare. “I didn’t mess up,” she insisted. Rather, “part of his ride was to warn the British that were already there that, hey, you’re not going to succeed.” She was simply candidly answering a “shout-out, ‘gotcha’ type of question.”
In other words, Palin was making a subtle, larger point, and if you say otherwise, you’re just like the lamestream media that are out to make her look bad and in fact are simply betraying your own ignorance. (Did you know that the colonists at the time were British subjects and considered themselves British? She tricked ya there!) So: nothing new.
What was new was the response of some apparent online supporters, who, as noticed by the Little Green Footballs blog, went on Wikipedia to try to make the history of the American Revolution more Palin-compliant. Among the sources they attempted to cite in support of Palin’s version of events: Palin’s own answer, as quoted in newspapers. The dialogue between the volunteer revisers and Wikipedia’s editors is fascinating, and a little horrifying. (Using Palin’s quote to bolster Palin’s quote, infinite-loop-style, is justified, someone says, because the newspaper was quoting “an influential American politician.”)
[This is the point at which, I assume, someone points out that President Obama or Vice President Biden or some other Democrat has made gaffes and been treated more leniently by the liberal media. Argue that if you want, but as Dave Weigel at Slate points out, there is no history, so far as I'm aware, of people trying to make Wikipedia support Obama's "57 states" flub.]
Palin’s history lesson is a controversy different in character and content from Anthony Weiner’s Twitter woes last week. On the one hand, no one is suggesting that anyone “hacked” an interview with Sarah Palin, and on the other hand, botching an American-history citation is not allegedly tweeting a salacious picture in public. (Which is the worse offense, I leave to the voters.) But they are both examples of a common pattern: a politician, caught in a dustup, tries to brazen his/her way through it and ends up looking even worse. (While, maybe, rallying his/her supporters even more strongly.)
But each controversy involves its own kind of social-media twist that played off the malleability of sourcing online. In the Weiner case, the Congressman cited a “hack,” which, absent an official investigation, hasn’t been proven or disproven — there are many theories about where the crotch shot came from, but no absolute proof. And in Palin’s case, an attempt to throw up dust by claiming allegorical speaking in the service of a larger truth got support, or at least attempted support, from people trying to rewrite wiki-history.
What is truth, anyway? I don’t know that I can answer that larger philosophical question for you here. But it may be time for the Tuned In household to invest in an encyclopedia.