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Employee fired for updating Wikipedia

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A bit more Wikipedia news simply because it’s interesting, sad, and startling. When Tim Russert collapsed last week and was eventually pronounced dead – an absolute tragedy – NBC news held on reporting the news until Russerts family could be notified. It was a noble act, all said.

However, a “junior-level” employee – read someone who knows how to use the Internet – at Internet Broadcasting Services, a rebroadcasting service used by NBC affiliates, among others, changed Russert’s Wikipedia entry, making the entry past tense and mentioning his time of death. Presumably they got the information through the grapevine at NBC and didn’t know about the embargo.

The employee was fired, first off, which is fairly egregious. Then, however, another IBS employee went into Wikipedia and changed the entry back in anticipation of blowback from NBC. What began with good intentions – saving Russert’s family the grief of hearing about his death between tampon and Geritol commercials – ended with a brouhaha that overshadows, at least in some circles, the death of a great newsman.

NBC, of all organizations, should know what to do with news. They have been a trusted source for decades. For them to fumble in this way – to not be able to pick up the phone to call the family immediately, to fail to keep in contact with folks who could tell them it’s OK to run the story, to have to get the news out of an reporter’s death and to presumably get the exclusive – is an egregious chain of failure that led to what can only be described as a debacle.

Fine, can the kid because he updated Wikipedia on the job. That’s fair. But don’t try to cover your tracks ham-handedly.

And no, I’m not happy Wikipedia “scooped” NBC on this. I’m unhappy that NBC didn’t have the wherewithal to get Russert’s family to his bedside – even by phone and even posthumously – quickly enough to not even warrant mention of a news embargo. His death wasn’t news: his death was a private tragedy. We ghoulishly made it news.

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