Can Wikipedia Handle Politics? A Close Reading of How it Plays the Plame Game

As of this writing--around 8 p.m., Pacific time, on the evening of August 21, 2007--the Wikipedia entry entitled "Plame affair" is, as the title promises, an account of the events surrounding the disclosure of Valerie Plame's status as a covert CIA operative. Nearly 20,000 words long, including its sources, it was last edited by a user about four hours ago; it's as sober and spin-free a summation of the facts in this gnarled case as one could imagine. The page is not "on wheels," does not conclude that SP3C1AL C0UNS3L P4TRICK J. F!TZG3RALD SUX0R UR ALL GAY, and hasn't recently gotten any anonymous edits from dubious sources.

That's fortunate, since "Plame affair" is a fine example of how Wikipedia has become the de facto source for information on virtually everything. Google "plame," and the first two hits are Wikipedia entries; Google "valerie plame," and the same entries are preceded only by three images of her. The Washington Post's overview of her career may be more carefully sculpted, but online, at least, Wikipedia's is the version of the story that matters most.

Beyond its immediate utility, the beauty of Wikipedia is its transparency--not just that anyone can edit it, but that anyone can see what edits have been made, when they've been made, and (to some extent) by whom they've been made. Even better, its editors hash things out via a discussion that's also permanently public. If journalism is "the first rough draft of history," Wikipedia preserves history's working notepad. Click on the "Plame affair" page's "Talk" tab, scan past a series of stern and frequently ignored directives ("This is not a forum for general discussion about the article's subject. ... Please try to keep a cool head when commenting here"), and you'll be plunged into a roiling debate--eight very, very long pages of it--beginning with more than 12,000 words on what exactly to call the cloud of information and rhetoric surrounding Plame's outing.

"Plame affair" is the default for the moment, though some users think "affair" is vague and romantic: one commenter notes that "major issues in Bill Clinton's administration" were described as "scandals" or "controversies," while Reagan and Bush II got "affairs." Alternate suggestions include "CIA leak case," "Bush administration leak of a CIA agent's identity," "Plamegate" and "Disclosure of Valerie Plame's CIA employment."

Some of these descriptors are imprecise; some are unwieldy; all are loaded, at least a little, one way or another. Wikipedia, of course, has an incredibly strong culture of "Neutral Point of View"; the idea is that users' Talmudic back-and-forth will eventually result in something as close to free of bias as possible. In practice, this lets little things that are true and even relevant keep accruing on the page like barnacles. To shear them away on the basis of relative importance--to rank their relative importance at all--can flirt with bias itself. So "Plame affair" keeps growing. There are quotes from several members of the Scooter Libby trial's jury, from George Tenet's memoir, from Michael Isikoff and David Corn's book Hubris; none of them are irrelevant, and all of them cloud the issue.

Graceful writing takes a distant second place to neutrality. The language of the "Plame affair" article, like a lot of Wikipedia, is flatly declarative, not particularly quotable and occasionally afflicted with wobbly construction. (A typical sentence: "It is the only indictment brought by the grand jury, and Fitzgerald has stated that he does not expect to be indicting anyone else, citing repeatedly Libby's obstruction of justice as a main impediment to finding out what happened in investigating the leak of Valerie Wilson's classified, covert CIA identity.") And so the entry is an obstacle course of little infelicities and colorless clots of subclauses, from the first paragraph's factual but pace-dragging citation of Joe Wilson's memoir The Politics of Truth to the concluding section, headlined "Other perspectives on the CIA leak scandal," which reads (following a link to "Alternate theories regarding the CIA leak scandal") in its entirety: "Since the CIA leak scandal became public knowledge, commentators began presenting multiple and often highly-contested perspectives on it in various media." You don't say.

To make a case for how the parts of the Plame tzimmes fit together is, unavoidably, to make a political argument. That's antithetical to the Wikipedia ethos, whose dedication to unvarnished facts is worthy of Dickens's Mr. Gradgrind. Without some kind of thesis behind it, "Plame affair" is a dehydrated feast, a 20,000-word catalogue of notes and quotations and factoids that all have some bearing on the case in question but aren't weighted for significance, have no particular narrative thread, and don't begin to explain the meaning of the whole thing. It's hard to imagine a Wikipedia that could function any other way, but the Internet hive-mind, negotiating in good faith and carefully hammering out compromise language, has done exactly what it was supposed to do--and failed anyway. The article, for all its catholic precision, isn't actually useful, because it's almost impossible to read. To paraphrase John Berryman: Wikipedia, friends, is boring. We must not say so.

By Douglas Wolk