Often in the course of my job, I find numerous “facts” that aren’t facts at all.
No, members of Congress can’t draw a pension of their full salary after one term. No, Mr. Rogers was not a Navy SEAL and sniper in Vietnam (I can’t even picture that!). And no, Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd did not die after attending Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration luncheon.
Sometimes such yarns are the result of ideologically driven crusades and confirmation bias. Sometimes it’s because of unreliable sources.
In the case of the pension story, it was a viral email which occasionally reappears but is easily disproved by the facts. According to the Congressional Research Service:
“Members of Congress are eligible for a pension at the age of 62 if they have completed at least five years of service. Members are eligible for a pension at age 50 if they have completed 20 years of service, or at any age after completing 25 years of service. The amount of the pension depends on years of service and the average of the highest three years of salary. By law, the starting amount of a member’s retirement annuity may not exceed 80 percent of his or her final salary.”
That means that only senators, who serve a term of six years, are eligible for pension after one full term, and not at full salary; House members must serve three two-year terms to become eligible.
The Mr. Rogers yarn was also an Internet/email rumor which additionally posited that the mild-mannered Fred Rogers, who died in 2003, wore his famous sweater and long-sleeved shirts to hide tattoos from his time in the service. The truth was that he was never in the military; he went from high school straight to college and then into television work, with no gaps. He was also too old for the draft by the time the Vietnam conflict came around … not that that matters to some people. Some have even spread rumors of him having a violent criminal/child molestation past. Now that’s not very neighborly, is it?
Kennedy and Byrd were among several public figures killed by Wikipedia (including comedian Sinbad and actress Zsa Zsa Gabor, both still alive, even though someone faked Gabor’s death again this week), or more accurately, reported dead on Wikipedia before they actually died. Kennedy did suffer a seizure at the luncheon, but did not die, despite the notation on his Wikipedia page that day. Kennedy survived that seizure and continued his work in the Senate until that spring when he learned that his brain tumor had spread. He eventually died in late August of that year, about two weeks after his sister Eunice died.
Byrd, who had been sitting with Kennedy at the luncheon, left in a state of upset to go to his office after Kennedy’s seizure, which was apparently enough for someone editing his Wikipedia page to decide that he’d died; the controversial senator stuck around, though, not shuffling off the mortal coil until June 2010.
This is one of the problems with open-content “encyclopedias” such as Wikipedia: As just about anyone can edit the entries, it doesn’t take much to have false information spread very quickly.
Yes, Wikipedia has tightened its rules since its beginning in 2001, but on the Internet, a second can be an eternity, and before you know it, florists are warming up the vases and florist foam for condolence bouquets.
The Washington Post noted in its 2009 story on the Byrd and Kennedy “deaths” that Wikipedia acknowledges the perils of its process on its site, including the possibility of vandalism or the publication of false information, as has happened before:
“In one well-publicized case, the Wikipedia biography of journalist John Seigenthaler was edited to suggest he was complicit in the assassinations of both John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. While Kennedy and Byrd’s entries were fixed within minutes, Seigenthaler’s was wrong for months.”
Since its inception, the reliability of Wikipedia’s information has been fodder for debate, with journalists and academics arguing its merits (the idea of neutrality introduced by the numerous editors) and drawbacks (the reality of not-so-neutral entries, or those written by non-experts in a given field). The site does a lot well, but as with most tertiary sources, is only as good as its sources and editors.
My advice for it and other wikis is the same as it is for most sources: Trust, but verify. At the newspaper, we tend to use Wikipedia and similar sites only as a starting point, and double- and triple-check with our own original research and/or additional Internet sources (which ideally will be primary sources), then attribute information accordingly.
There’s nothing wrong with using Wikipedia … as long as you don’t consider it as the last authority, and remember that no one is infallible. Those sources at the bottom of its articles are there for a reason—so you can check them yourself to make sure the information is accurate, and even then you should consider the authority of the author and his purpose, as well as that of the publisher. Joe Blow might write entertainingly, but is he an expert in the given subject?
For that matter, I have a background that includes—among other things—studies in constitutional law, political science, psychology, sociology and criminology, as well as theater and music. Does that make me an expert on those topics? Eh, not really, but I at least have an inkling of what I’m talking about most of the time when asked. If not, I can tell you where to go (take that as you will) … for the answers. 😉
What it comes down to much of the time is trust. If you’d rather trust a tertiary source over a secondary or primary source, that’s your business. Just don’t get upset when someone doesn’t trust your word because of it.
And stop pouting already!
On another subject entirely, please don’t forget about artist Ray Ferrer, currently battling a baseball-sized brain tumor in San Diego. His wife Rhian has set up a Go Fund Me page to help with the medical expenses, and has included links to his websites and both his and her Etsy pages (she’s even included a discount code for those of us who love Ray’s work but maybe can’t afford to contribute a lot).
Please consider dropping by to offer comfort, donate and/or buy some art. Every little bit helps!