Wikipedia (Link, Link): A Cautionary Tale (2012)

by Jane Anne Morris


If you are an environmentalist, one sure way to become enraged is to read the World Book Encyclopedia‘s entries on Mining, or Nuclear Energy. They are so whimsical and unrelated to reality that you might wonder why so many consider World Book to be a reliable authority on anything. (Well, maybe aardvarks, but then I don’t know anything about aardvarks.)

This sort of justifiable frustration contributed to the welcome reception given in recent years to the likes of Wikipedia, a “people’s” compendium not burdened (supposedly) by the invisible establishment censors that evidently supervise the World Book universe. But Wikipedia, useful as it may be in some cases, does not eliminate the necessity of determining the biases of the source.

I’m not ready to review Wikipedia as a whole, but recently had a worrisome experience that started when I saw a Wikipedia entry on something I knew a lot about.

An entry on something I studied for nearly a decade, and made the subject of my 700+ page anthropology dissertation. The entry was patchy, so I clicked history. The article I linked to was utterly unfamiliar, as if I’d gotten off a bus in the wrong city, then tried to get my bearings.

My confusion and disbelief mounted and started elbowing each other. I didn’t expect to hear about the brothel scandal on their fiftieth anniversary, but I did expect to hear about the general manager’s resignation, the subsequent reorganization, and the decade-long fight with locals over stripmining that set it all up.

I didn’t expect them to quote the brochures that described their proposed fuel source as having an energy content comparable to dirt, but I did expect to hear about the $583 million bond referendum they lost by a 60-40 margin to an opposition that was outspent nine-to-one.

In the linked article, the history of the quasi-public utility I knew so well unfolded smoothly without bumping into any historical marker familiar to me from my own experience. It was like a history of the U.S. armed forces that told only of soldiers handing out candy bars, and air-lifting peasant children for cleft-palate surgery.

When I got to the end of the article and saw the author’s name, all became clear. Here’s the scoop.

The whole article was written by the utility’s long-time public relations officer.

A decade-long controversy involving stripmining, dozens of regulatory agencies and permits, numerous court cases, a failed bond referendum, a series of management scandals, and a very public re-organization—were not just skipped over lightly but ignored, obliterated in this paean to the agency’s selfless dedication to the public good, boat ramps, home weatherization, and parks.

From its origin in 1935 as a “river authority,” authorized to build a dam and sell a little hydroelectric power, it has grown to become an immensely powerful agency that controls both the water and electricity resources of a wide swathe of Texas. As a quasi-public utility created by the state legislature, it is exceedingly resistant to public input despite its diverse appointed governing board.

As references, the article cites only sources subsidized by the agency itself. Is this circular or what?

I won’t tell the story here. (You can read my dissertation, or articles by Bill Bishop (Bastrop County Times) and Davis McAuley (Bastrop Advertiser), who investigated and catalogued years of shenanigans by the utility). But consider: how many other agencies, companies, outfits, individuals, or others with very specific agendas have used this and other online platforms to essentially write their own imaginary histories by submitting public relations puff pieces to an uncritical public?

The Wikipedia link goes to the Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook of Texas Online, which you might think would hesitate to publish puff pieces in a reference book.

My dissertation on them is called Board and Staff: An Ethnography of the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) of Texas (1987). It has been used in several graduate classes at the University of Texas. For library availability, see WorldCat.