The Whole Truth, and Nothing but -- Now Open for Negotiation?

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Phil Bronstein Executive Vice President and Editor-at-Large, San Francisco Chronicle

"In the 21st century, can facts matter?"

Good question from Mitch Kapor, founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, at a UC Berkeley forum on the Future of the Forum last weekend. "How do we make facts matter? Or is that hopeless?"


More potential bad news for journalists searching for their future value, and also for the public hoping to sort out the massive scrum of big-pipe web info.

What the hell are facts, anyway? How and where do we find them? Are they the same as the truth? Can they be negotiated? And does any of this get sorted out on cool, ubiquitous sites like Wikipedia?

Nobody mentioned truth, thank God, at the Berkeley event. But the word "fact" was tossed around like a rag doll.

I'm a fact-seeker, so I paid close attention.

The Saturday morning panel included Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster, Kapor, and "Smart Mobs" author and social/digital media frontier pioneer, Howard Rheingold. These are people who have strong opinions about what is and what isn't.

MIT social media professor Judith Donath was also there, but she was so impossibly smart, I couldn't really keep up with her presentation.

The whole day was supposed to be about "Internet Communities and the Public Interest," according to the Berkeley New Media Center brochure. But the "fact" discussion was the most interesting to me and circled around Wikipedia because Wales was a presenter and the keynote speaker that night.

Kapor said Wikipedia was, "an incredibly valuable cultural forum," "tries to get agreement about facts." OK. I agree with Rheingold, who believes Wikipedia "is the place to start studying what happened..." But agreement about facts and real facts aren't always the same thing.

Wales described his invention as "the dominant public forum for facts today." He talked about how the Wikipedia article in Farsi on Iranian unrest satisfied him "with respect to our standards of just gave the facts." Then he told a tale about a Wikistory on an old battle between the Lithuanians and the Poles. He was thrilled that while Lithuanian and Polish Wikipedia versions were slanted to reflect each country's version of events, the English story "seemed like a place where the Polish people and Lithuanians had met to sort of hash out the differences."

The editors on each side "sort of figured out a compromise version."

I think I know what he meant, but compromise versions are often the opposite of fact. Just compare most Congressional bills between the original and the ultimate cross-party, cross-chamber compromise that passes.

Neutrality also doesn't necessarily lead to facts, though it's a lot more peaceful than debate, which can. Neutral is not the same as unbiased. Switzerland probably has its favorites, but just clams up about who they are.

Wikipedia gets more traffic, according to Wales, than CNN, BBC, New York Times, ABC, NBC and CBS combined. "We are the mainstream media."

So, given Wikipedia's "astounding power" (Kapor), should we be as confident as Wales that compromise, agreement, and neutrality get us to facts?

That's not entirely fair given what a useful, impressive, crowd-sourcing, intricately footnoted machine Jimmy Wales and Co. have built. It's often the first stop on my research train. But we should always keep Ronald Reagan in mind: trust, but verify.

The biggest danger of the web, said Rheingold, is not predators and porn spam but people (especially the inquiring young minds) who "are not going to be able to distinguish bulls--t from accurate information. This is the single most important danger facing the future of the public sphere."

While Wikipedia is a great starting point, Rheingold was adamant that it's still "up to you to determine the accuracy of that information."

And journalists? What are we good for in the 21st century? With the talented among us, it's our "infallible, internal (bull)s--t detector," says Rheingold, paraphrasing Ernest Hemingway.

Now that doesn't involve technology. But it is a fact.