Error on Wikipedia

Posted on Apr 8, 2016 in Uncategorized

From Terri Hinte, Sonny’s publicist:

Hive mind: I have a question about correcting errors on a Wikipedia page. Forgive the length, but it’s complicated and vexing.

The specific error is on Sonny Rollins’s page, in the Early Life section. “He has said that a concert by Frank Sinatra at his high school, accompanied by a plea for racial harmony, changed his life.” But – he never said this. The concert happened, but “changed his life”? No.

The quote is sourced to a Feb 2012 NY Times piece by Megan Abbott, “Where Lupo the Wolf Goes for Dinner.” It’s an article about restaurants and such in Harlem, and indirectly attributes this quote to Sonny. “In the audience was the future jazz musician Sonny Rollins, who later said the event changed his life.” However, HE NEVER SAID THIS.

I contacted the writer in Dec. and asked her where she got this erroneous information. She wrote back: “Hmm. It appears in a number of places, but here it is on video? Is this what you mean?” She included a link to an interview Sonny did for the Academy of Achievement in which he describes the incident at his high school and Frank Sinatra’s visit as he has described them elsewhere: the music helped calm tensions in the student body. But nothing about this incident changing his life.

Ms. Abbott finally told me that “it could be argued as a matter of interpretation.” Right, if you’re in the business of making stuff up.

In the meantime, someone working with us removed the offending sentence from Wikipedia on Dec 14, 2015, but the revision history shows that it was restored an hour later, with this comment: “Unexplained removal of sourced material. If an artist says something changed his life, that is encyclopedic.”

Finally, on Dec 18, I wrote to the Wikipedia Support Team to report this error. I heard from a certain Mike VanHall on Feb 5 telling me that he could not remove that sentence because “wikipedia articles are created using reliable, third-party source to verify the content that is presented.” He advised contacting the publisher (NY Times) to seek a correction (of the 4-year-old article).

Well, I didn’t get around to that. Now there’s a new piece in circulation by Shaun Tandon, via Agence France-Presse. Mr. Tandon had a phone interview with Sonny, and the piece is quite well done, except for his reference to this Frank Sinatra incident, which, Tandon writes, “inspired [Rollins] into a career in music.” WTF!

Now, the original error has been embellished and disseminated around the world. Tandon could have asked Sonny about it, but chose to make use of Wikipedia instead. Right, Sonny would not have had a career in music if it weren’t for Frank Sinatra.

So – a cautionary tale. And is it even possible to get a correction issued on a 4-year-old article? I can presumably chase down the writer of the latest invention. But as we all know, it’s difficult to recall the rocket. *Thanks, gente.*