Saturday, September 07, 2019

Wikipedia Bias. Apply a Discount

Alger Hiss occurred to me for some reason yesterday, and I thought "He must be long dead, correct? Did the final confirmation of his guilt finally come out after that, as it did when one of the Rosenberg's friends, practically on his death bed, admitted that they actually had been treasonous?" Wikipedia is the place to start for such things, though perhaps not to finish. Hiss died in 1996, and other information has come out since then, though none of the confessional variety.

The assembled evidence was already pretty thorough, I recalled from the last time I had thought about it. Had it held up? According to the lead paragraph, it had mostly held up, though the final conclusion remains "controversial."  That can often be a weasel word, of giving credence to some dead-ender who just won't give it up - a word used only on one side of the author's biases, not on another.  I doubt that they ever referred to the matter of Barack Obama's birth certificate as "controversial," for example, despite the controversy.

So just for fun I followed footnote #5 in the article and dug deeper on the people being quoted.  It is true that a legit scholar said his full guilt was controversial, but when you read her material, you come away thinking "no, no really. She doesn't doubt his guilt."  Some aspects are controversial. His guilt is not, except to some dead-enders with fairly obvious political motives.

I then went back and read the rest of the article and found much the same sort of slant, raising doubt as strongly as possible, then conceding sullenly that there probably wasn't much to it.  John Dean claimed that Nixon had told Chuck Colson they had forged the infamous typewriter. There was some chiming in that J Edgar Hoover would have been capable of that, plus some hand-waving about Nixon.  Yet Colson says it never happened, and well...John Dean.  (Without looking, I'm betting Wikipedia regards Dean as a basically reliable source, pooh-poohing any idea Watergate was trying to rescue information about his wife working as an escort, if they mention it at all.  I'm doubting that even makes it to "controversial.")

Nixon was shady about the whole Hiss case in some ways, and one can go back and make the argument that Hiss should never have been convicted, have never been found guilty. There is this Nixon quote, for example:
We won the Hiss case in the papers. We did. I had to leak stuff all over the place. Because the Justice Department would not prosecute it. Hoover didn't even cooperate.... It was won in the papers. I leaked out the papers.... I leaked out the testimony. I had Hiss convicted before he ever got to the grand jury.... Go back and read the chapter on the Hiss case in Six Crises and you'll see how it was done. It wasn't done waiting for the goddamn courts or the attorney general or the FBI
But that is not the same as the historian's conclusion about guilt.

So, nothing in the Wikipedia article seems to be false, nor would I expect it.  But it is wise to apply a discount to its truth.

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