When Things Get Sticky, Turn to the Wiki?

03/28/2008 02:44 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This day and age, it seems that you are more likely to encounter someone who feels they haven't received a fair shake at the hands of the media than not. Just about everybody feels the media is biased against them, a complaint that does more to elucidate the frustration of media participants than the actual bias of media professionals. After all, what's to be done if you feel like your best avenue of defense can only be provided by your perceived executioners? If you're a Democratic candidate for the presidential nomination, for instance, fearful of what might happen when you step into a debate at the Fox henhouse, what can you do, other than to either take your chances or take your ball and go home?

Well, a fascinating article in the Columbia Journalism Review goes a long way to establishing a third way: take it to the internet, specifically, the Wikipedia. That's what American cyclist Floyd Landis is doing to clear his own name. Landis, who became the first Tour De France winner in the post-Lance Armstrong era, didn't get to enjoy the title for a week before he found himself roundly accused of cheating. One of his urine samples--the one he provided in advance of the tremendous comeback he mounted in Stage 17 of the Tour--came back from the lab with credibility-crippling results: a testosterone level that was outside the allowable ratio.

Landis has been adamant about his innocence from the outset, but his pleas were largely buried under an avalanche of bad headlines in the sporting press. Timing played a big role. It had been a contentious Tour De France, the stage set when two of Europe's top riders were pre-emptively tossed as a result of the Operacion Puerto doping case. Stateside, the sporting press had Major League Baseball's various steroid scandals on the brain. For Landis, it was a "perfect storm" of controversy that flooded his attempts at self-defense under. So Landis and his defense team turned to the Wikipedia, using the user-generated site as a repository for documentation and exculpatory evidence, figuring that the by inviting outsider scrutiny from the self-policing Wiki community, he could begin to restore his tarnished credibility.

Heaven knows the Wikipedia, for all its purist claims, is a far from perfect venue. Just ask John Siegenthaler, Sr. Nevertheless, Landis' innovative use of the forum is netting some positive results: it's generated fervent online discussion that's unsteered by media reports, put Landis in touch with scientific experts he would have had to spend considerable time and funds to track down, and, according to the CJR, the effort has largely led to "more nuanced press coverage" in recent months.

It remains to be seen whether Landis can ultimately clear himself using these tactics. But he's managed to shine a light on the institutional flaws in the traditional media's coverage. CJR's Jennifer Hughes does a nice job summing up:

It is part of the job of journalists to be skeptical, but in this case the risk appears to be that we applied our skepticism unevenly, giving the science (about which we know little) a pass and dismissing the protestations of innocence from a source backed into the proverbial corner (something reporters deal with all the time).

It's also worth noting that Landis himself has arrived at a place where he's a lot more tempered in his attitude toward the media than you might expect: "I don't blame the media...At first the authorities had very little information, and I had even less." Whether or not the Wikipedia proves to be a silver bullet solution to the court of public opinion, Landis has nevertheless found a way to make that vital information available. It will be interesting to see if this use of the Wikipedia becomes commonplace enough to enact fundamental media reform.

The Wiki Defense [CJR]