Wikipedia debate on Wilson’s Accusation of President Obama

[An abstract jurisprudence question–what is law–plays a significant role in deciding whether President Obama lied when he said his proposed changes to health insurance laws would not give coverage to illegal immigrants. Does law mean those written in statutes? Or does law mean those ACTUALLY enforced by court and administration? See the following story. ]

Wikipedia’s Rapid Reaction to Outburst During Obama Speech

By Robert Mackey

DESCRIPTIONChip Somodevilla/Getty Images Rep. Joe Wilson heckling President Barack Obama during a presidential address to Congress on Wednesday.

If journalism is the first draft of history, what is a Wikipedia entry when it is updated within minutes of an event to reflect changes in a person’s biography?

This is the very live issue that cropped up in a heated argument on the discussion page that accompanies Wikipedia’s entry on Representative Joe Wilson Wednesday night, just 30 minutes after the Republican from South Carolina interrupted President Barack Obama’s speech by shouting “You lie!” As my colleague Carl Hulse reported in a blog post published about 10 minutes after the fight got going on Wikipedia, Mr. Wilson’s outburst came in response to the president’s statement that his proposed changes to health insurance laws would not give coverage to illegal immigrants.

Since Mr. Wilson’s shout was made during a live television broadcast — now archived on YouTube by The Associated Press — in front of all of his colleagues, the fact that it happened is not in dispute. After Wikipedia’s editors initially removed the first reference to the event from the entry on Mr. Wilson, citing concerns about sourcing and potential “vandalism,” the page was locked to prevent new or unregistered users from editing it.

That is when the argument among Wikipedians — which can be read in full on the discussion page starting here — really took off.

A user going by the name Dcmacnut wrote:

I would say that Wikipedia is not news, and therefore not every single utterance by a member of congress is notable enough for inclusion. But, this is probably going to get significant RS coverage, so if it’s included we definitely need to be mindful of how it is presented. This is no different than many of the audience heckler incidents during the August town hall meetings. Where do you draw the line?

Another user, registered as RickDesper, replied:

It certainly is different than a heckler at a political rally. The man is a US Congressman! This shout is of historic importance. Literally calling the President of the US a liar during a joint session of Congress is behavior that is, to my knowledge, completely without precedent. Anybody who argues that this event is insignificant is either being disingenuous or has completely deluded himself.

When the Wikpedians eventually did decide to restore a reference to the event to the entry on Mr. Wilson, the argument shifted to new ground: whether or not to include language explaining that Mr. Wilson did not have the facts on his side when he made the accusation that Mr. Obama was lying.

The non-partisan Web site explained last month that while “a chain e-mail,” working its way around the country states flatly that a health care reform bill before the House of Representatives, where Mr. Wilson does his work, will provide coverage for illegal immigrants, that statement is simply “false.” FactCheck’s editors wrote: “That’s simply not what the bill says at all,” and added that, “the bill does explicitly say that illegal immigrants can’t get any government money to pay for health care.”

Nonetheless, a Wikpedia user writing under the name Onefinalstep argued:

There is serious debate about whether illegals will benefit from the healthcare bill due to a lack of an enforcement mechanism placed in the text of the statute. Although there is no provision “providing” coverage for illegals, the comment the representative made could be in response to the non enforcement problem.

An anonymous user countered by arguing that it should be noted that the language of the House bill contradicts Mr. Wilson:

So because you feel illegals will illegally cheat the system to benefit then that makes Obama a liar. No fact check reference needs to be used. It should be linked directly to the HC bill where it states no money will be spent on illegals. That reference should be restored as it helps stop the lies that keep going around and shows how Joe Wilson is a liar.

Another anonymous user argued:

[N]o matter what your opinion is, if the bill says illegals cannot sign up, that makes it illegal for illegals to sign up. Saying a politician is a liar because he can’t personally enforce the law on everyone at the same time all the time is a pretty big joke. The bill outlaws it, that is how law works. Enforcement is a completely different matter. The courts handle fraud. If you don’t like it, then you would be against the entire US legal system.

As with many other arguments on the Internet, the discussion went on (and on) at some length from there and resulted in no agreement between people of different political views on whether it was Mr. Wilson or Mr. Obama who should be described as having lied.

Eventually the editors decided to not attempt to answer the question as to who was telling the truth and present the question of fact as an “opinion.” Here is the start of the Wikipedia entry as it stands at time of publication:

During the September 9, 2009 speech to a joint session of Congress by President Obama, Wilson responded to the President’s statement that there would be no coverage for illegal immigrants in his health care plan by pointing and shouting “You lie!”

Various organizations, CNN Truth Squad, PolitiFact, and, have expressed the opinion that U.S. House of Representative’s proposed health care plan does not in cover illegal immigrants. However, others, specifically Federation for American Immigration Reform, argue that the House bill does provide health care coverage for illegal immigrants.

As my colleague Noam Cohen reported last month, in an article about Wikipedia’s decision to place limits on who can edit pages about living people, what the online encyclopedia says about an event right after it occurs matters because, whether the people who write and edit it consider it a news source, it is used that way:

Roughly 60 million Americans visit Wikipedia every month. It is the first reference point for many Web inquiries — not least because its pages often lead the search results on Google, Yahoo and Bing.

Update | 11:41 a.m. The Wikipedia entry on Mr. Wilson has once again been edited to remove the paragraph we quoted above, which called the suggestion that the new law might provide coverage to illegal immigrants an “opinion.”