Wikipedia is a great resource if you want to find out something about pelicans, string theory, or Abba, but if you're looking at an issue that's remotely political or controversial it's worse than useless. I've run into this many times, and I was reminded of it again as I did some research for my last article about Jimmy Carter's record on human rights.
Let's take just one example. Here's what the Wikipedia entry on Carter currently says about Carter and Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza (in a section entitled "human rights"):
Carter promoted a foreign policy that put human rights at the front. This was a break from the policies of several predecessors, in which human rights abuses were often overlooked if they were committed by a nation that was allied with the United States. The Carter Administration ended support to the historically U.S.-backed Somoza regime in Nicaragua and gave aid to the new Sandinista National Liberation Front government that assumed power after Somoza's overthrow.
Gosh, Carter ended support for Somoza and gave aid to the Sandinistas? What a great guy! But wait--here's a slightly less Pollyannaish account of the Carter administration "ending support" for the Somoza regime:
When [Somoza's] rule was challenged, by the Sandinistas in the late 1970s, the US first tried to institute what was called "Somocismo [Somoza-ism] without Somoza" -- that is, the whole corrupt system intact, but with somebody else at the top. That didn't work, so President Carter tried to maintain Somoza's National Guard as a base for US power. [...]
The National Guard had always been remarkably brutal and sadistic. By June 1979, it was carrying out massive atrocities in the war against the Sandinistas, bombing residential neighborhoods in Managua, killing tens of thousands of people. At that point, the US ambassador sent a cable to the White House saying it would be "ill-advised" to tell the Guard to call off the bombing, because that might interfere with the policy of keeping them in power and the Sandinistas out.
Our ambassador to the Organization of American States also spoke in favor of "Somocismo without Somoza," but the OAS rejected the suggestion flat out. A few days later, Somoza flew off to Miami with what was left of the Nicaraguan national treasury, and the Guard collapsed.
And how about the relationship of the Carter administration to the Sandinistas (the FSLN)? In Wikipedialand the Carter administration provided financial aid to the Sandinistas because of its deep commitment to human rights, but the reality is just a tiny bit different. The actual strategy included both a covert response:
As the FSLN entered Managua on July 19, the Carter Administration "began setting the stage for a counterrevolution," Peter Kornbluh observes, mounting a clandestine operation to evacuate Guard commanders on U.S. planes disguised with Red Cross markings. This is a war crime punishable under the Geneva conventions [...]. Within six months after the overthrow of Somoza, the Carter Administration had initiated the CIA destabilization campaign, inherited and expanded by the Reaganites. The Carter doves did not give direct support to the National Guard forces that they helped reconstitute, preferring to use the neo-Nazi Argentine generals "as a proxy for the United States" (Rand Corporation terrorism expert Brian Jenkins).
And a financial response:
[U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua] Pezzullo's next task was to "moderate the FSLN." The Carter doves proposed economic aid as "the main source of U.S. influence" (Pastor). The U.S. business community supported this plan, particularly U.S. banks, which, as noted in the London Financial Times, were pressuring Carter to provide funds to Nicaragua so that their loans to Somoza would be repaid (courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer, as in the Savings & Loan scam of the Reagan years). The banks were particularly concerned that if Nicaragua, reduced to utter ruin and bankruptcy by the U.S.-backed Somoza regime, were to default on the Somoza debt, it would serve as a "bad example" for other U.S. clients. It was also recognized that aid directed to anti-Sandinista elements in the ruling coalition was the last remaining device to block the FSLN and its programs. After Nicaragua reached a settlement with the banks, $75 million in aid was offered, about 60% for the private business sector, with $5 million a grant for private organizations and $70 million a loan (partly credits to buy U.S. goods, another taxpayer subsidy to corporations). One of the conditions was that no funds be used for projects with Cuban personnel, a way of ensuring that nothing would go to schools, the literacy campaign, health programs, or other reform measures for which Nicaragua was likely to turn to those with experience in such projects and willingness to serve. Nicaragua had no choice but to agree, since, as the Wall Street Journal noted, without this "signal of U.S. confidence in the stability of the country" there would be no bank loans, which were desperately needed.
So having accepted the inevitable reality that the game was finally up with Somoza (after playing it through to the bitter end), the Carter administration turned to covert measures and financial measures to try to overthrow or coerce the Sandinista government. Yet if you read the Wikipedia page you'll have no idea about any of this--and in fact you'll get the opposite impression.
This is absolutely standard fare for any political issues on Wikipedia. I see it again and again and again. In fact I have yet to see a Wikipedia entry on any remotely topical political issue that isn't biased, misleading, incomplete, or otherwise flawed in some fatal way.
You might say, but wait, this is Wikipedia, after all--so why don't you quit whining about it and just go in and edit the page yourself to change the things you feel are wrong? And I reply: because I've been that route before. I tried to change just one small passage on the Wikipedia page for Michael Hayden, replacing "seemed to deny" with "flatly denied" in reference to Hayden repeatedly saying "no" when a reporter mentioned that the 4th amendment to the Constitution contained the phrase "probable cause." This edit and other related edits were reversed over and over by random schmucks as well as Wikipedia administrators, who offered no concrete reason for doing so beyond the feeling that "a 4-star general and former director of the NSA being flatly mistaken about the wording of the Fourth Amendment is a bit hard to believe." I spent many hours arguing this point on the discussion page with citations from the actual transcript, waiting in vain to hear any kind of rational reason why "no" doesn't mean "no" when Michael Hayden says it. All I got was more vague opinions, evasions, and handwaving in reply. After days of back and forth arguing and multiple edits tossed out the window, I finally gave up. And at the end of all of that, the page ended up worse than it had been when I began!
Rarely have I had such an experience in futility and frustration. And it taught me that not only is Wikipedia fatally flawed when it comes to any remotely controversial topic, but it's also a waste of your time to try to improve it.