Listen To This Story
Part 2 of a Series
In Part I of this series, I talked about the tremendous power and influence of Wikipedia — and its cultural bias — in shaping how we think.
In Part 2, I focus on a problem that can affect anyone looking for solid information on anything — but especially when you want information to help you judge the reliability and character of individuals whose views may diverge from those of the establishment.
While Wikipedia has value, it is riddled with factual errors. (To get a whiff, go here, here, here, and here.) One researcher described the tenaciousness of an error:
It’s been corrected, but keeps coming back, and… it’s creeping into scholarly work. To make matters worse, these scholarly sources are now being cited by the Wikipedia article — so that, in effect, the article is citing itself, in support of its own erroneous claims.
That’s not surprising considering that anyone — regardless of any credentialled expertise — can contribute whatever they wish, without peer review; this includes individuals with a grudge, multinational corporations, and government agencies with agendas.
Wikipedia claims to be self-correcting by an army of volunteers, yet errors abound on the most basic facts.
But there’s a more subtle thing going on: creating a false impression about the subject, perhaps deliberately, by the complete omission of critical facts while including many details of far less importance that can affect whether the reader reacts positively or negatively.
And something even worse, as you will see below.
Ban, No, Burn That Book
Anyone who is not in good standing with the establishment stands little chance of being portrayed in a positive light. And that can have an enormous impact on how others perceive a subject or an individual.
Here’s an example: If you wanted to learn more about me, and you googled my name, the first result would be the Russ Baker page on Wikipedia.
One of the things you would read there is this commentary on the bestseller I wrote, Family of Secrets. The book was the result of five years of work and hundreds of interviews. Tim Rutten, then of the Los Angeles Times, expressed his opinion of it, and someone editing my Wikipedia page thought it worth to quote him at considerable length.
The book received scathing reviews. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, media critic Tim Rutten called the book a “dispiriting tome” that was an example of “paranoid literature.” He said that Baker “recklessly impugns, in the most disgusting possible way, the reputations not simply of men and women now dead, but of the living,” Rutten said that though George H.W. Bush was not likely to sue for libel, using a “tissue of innuendo, illogical inference, circumstance and guilt by tenuous association — as Baker does in this book — to indict rhetorically anyone, let alone a former chief executive, of an infamous murder is a reprehensible calumny.”
What I actually documented, with more than a thousand footnotes and bushels of documents, was that a young Bush, who went on to be named CIA director more than a decade later as a purported intelligence outsider, was in fact an insider who, thanks in part to his senator father’s close relationship with CIA director Allen Dulles, began a covert career with the agency under cover of being an offshore oil driller.
I recounted how Dulles and JFK had a falling out and how Dulles was forced to resign, and then provided great detail on a vast constellation of evidence that the very same intelligence operatives who specialized in the removal of national leaders abroad had very possibly done that again, only with Kennedy.
I recounted the remarkable fact that Bush had claimed not to recall where he was on November 22, 1963; then I showed where he was: in Dallas, mere blocks from where Kennedy was shot. And that week he met with Alfred Ulmer, a longtime Dulles favorite and coup specialist. I also showed evidence of Bush himself being CIA at the time.
Again, all of this I massively documented, and that is just the beginning of what I found. And yes, I received several scathing reviews from establishment organs, but my Wikipedia page never quoted any of the good ones I received — and from prominent people. In fact, they implied there were none. Here’s what you won’t find on Wikipedia:
One of the most important books of the past ten years. — Gore Vidal
An investigative gem filled with juicy revelations. — Sydney Schanberg, Pulitzer Prize winner, The New York Times
A tour de force… Family of Secrets has made me rethink even those events I witnessed with my own eyes. — Dan Rather
Russ Baker’s work stands out for its fierce independence, fact-based reporting, and concern for what matters most to our democracy… A lot of us look to Russ to tell us what we didn’t know. — Bill Moyers
This is the book people will be mining for years to come. — David Margolick, Newsweek and Vanity Fair
That highly selective Wikipedia editing may explain this curious incident:
Last year, I reached out to Richard Tofel, a former top executive of The Wall Street Journal, and former president of ProPublica. Now retired, he consults and writes a substack on journalism and news nonprofits. I wrote:
Dick, I appreciate what you did at/for ProPublica, and also your very interesting piece on nonprofit journalism funders. I run a small nonprofit news outfit based here in NYC and was wondering if I might buy you lunch some time, pick your brain a bit, as you have been through so many of the challenges we’re dealing with.
He wrote me back:
Russ, Thanks for this. Sure. Let me know when might be good for you.
And in a subsequent email:
Yes, am in town, and happy to meet Monday. Am coming from Upper West Side, so if we could meet somewhere near a 1/2/3 stop that would be great. Let me know where and when best.
But a little later, I got this:
Thanks, but could we just talk by phone or Zoom? Sometime Monday would be fine.
Am at [_________ ]
I then called him. And his tone was distinctly chilly. So I asked him, point blank: Why was he backing off? Had something come his way to sour him on me?
He admitted to reading something online, and was upset with what someone said I wrote about Bush. He sputtered angrily, “How could you say something like that about a former president?!”
He wouldn’t listen when I tried to explain, and we ended the conversation on a decidedly unpleasant note. As far as I know, he has never read the actual book — to be sure, he has never contacted me again.
Aha! One Book Reviewer’s Motive
The basic problem — and almost certainly the reason Tofel soured on me so quickly — was that someone had edited my Wikipedia entry into a giant hit job on me. Years of painstaking, agnostic research culminating in historical revelation was reduced to rubble. All that remained was a collection of negative soundbites from establishment figures.
And those establishment figures certainly had motive: Tim Rutten, for instance, the Los Angeles Times writer who “volunteered” to review my book was, I was told, a friend of John Dean, who was angry with me over my fresh revelations regarding his true role in Watergate. Dean had directly expressed his displeasure to me with a warning. (The truth doesn’t make him look too good.)
Some time after Rutten unloaded on me, one of his columns prompted a “disciplinary review” and his “removal from writing book reviews.” He was eventually fired by the paper.
If You Can’t Burn the Truth, Smother It
A troll seems to have gone through many of the highlights of my career, including headline-worthy discoveries and major new perspectives on significant situations, and sought to diminish them — flattening them into a dull recitation of minutiae.
For instance, consider this bland, uninformative statement: “In 2004, he wrote articles critical of George W. Bush and his administration, examining Bush’s military record.”
In fact, I proved that the sitting president of the United States lied about and covered up how he dodged military service during a war he claimed to support, and hid all that — while attacking his Democratic opponent’s actual record of heroism in that same conflict. (For this, I received the 2005 Deadline Club award, which Wiki does admit.)
Here’s another bland, uninformative statement: The troll said that I “wrote articles critical of New York Times reporter Judith Miller.”
From the above, would you have guessed that I produced a cover story for one of the country’s most venerable magazines, The Nation, very early on calling out the Times for its role in helping cause the Iraq war by trumpeting the false casus belli, the “weapons of mass destruction” that did not exist? As Boston Magazine put it:
While the New York Times and Washington Post were heaping praise on Colin Powell’s now-infamous presentation of the trumped-up case for war with Iraq at the United Nations, Baker was scrutinizing the intelligence and standing strong against the tide, publicly doubting the Bush administration’s rationale for war. It was a fiercely unpopular stance at the time, but Baker, history proved, was on the right side.
But you will not find the above comment in my Wikipedia entry. Trolls selected instead this quote from Boston Magazine — which says just about the opposite:
Baker has abandoned the mainstream media and become a key player on the fringe, walking that murky line between conventional investigative journalist and wild-eyed conspiracy theorist.
Maybe not so “wild-eyed” — since, as the same author pointed out, “Baker, history proved, was on the right side.”
Anatomy of a Hit Job
The Wikipedia write-up on me is a crude, but clever, combination of fatally bad book reviews that poison everything else said about me, even the neutral bits, and the suspicious complete absence of the good reviews.
And any positive information is minimized, then buried — to ensure that no one would imagine I might actually be a good journalist whose work ought to be taken seriously. Yeah, some said I was OK before, but, well, I had gone off the deep end and was simply now beyond the pale. It was a cliche story: once promising individual gone haywire.
Reading this, I too would lump Russ Baker with the worst, especially in the Alex Jones “Gay Frogs” era. Not only had I made “ridiculous” charges about Bush and the Kennedy assassination, but also about Watergate, and — was I a 9/11 truther too? Was I, a serious journalist, to be labeled “conspiracy theorist,” clearly intended to apply to those who disseminate dangerous nonsense, as opposed to those who break new ground?
What Tofel was reacting to was a kind of character attack, a reputational drive-by shooting, which is impossible to avoid or mitigate, because the Wikipedia attacks never end.
A canceled lunch is the least of it. I have had to hoist this albatross now for years, while the Wikipedia page remained — and still remains — more or less as is, even after at least one well-meaning person tried, without success, to correct it.
This, it must be said, was what I had been warned about by friends working in marquee news organizations: What I had found was simply too big.