The Problem With Wikipedia: Westbrook Pegler Version

One of many problems with Wikipedia is how it tends to homogenize history and people. Truly despicable people come off as okay because there is one person in the world who thinks he or she wasn’t a monster. See, for example, George Hearst. Or, more to the point, see Westbrook Pegler. According to Wikipedia today (18 March 2011), Pegler can be described as follows:

Francis James Westbrook Pegler (August 2, 1894 – June 24, 1969) was an American journalist and writer. He was a popular columnist in the 1930s and 1940s famed for his opposition to the New Deal and labor unions. Pegler criticized every president from Herbert Hoover to FDR (“moosejaw”) to Harry Truman (“a thin-lipped hater”) to John F Kennedy. He also criticized the Supreme Court, the tax system, and labor unions. In 1962, he lost his contract with King Features Syndicate, owned by Hearst, after he started criticizing Hearst executives. His late writing appeared sporadically in obscure publications, including the John Birch Society’s American Opinion.

This is actually pretty forceful for Wikipedia, and if Wikipedia were this good generally, I would not have a problem with it. However, it is a far cry from the following description of Pegler by Max Blumenthal in Republican Gomorrah, where he writes that Westbrook Pegler was:

a prominent mid-century columnist and demagogue who became one of the godfathers of right-wing populism. Pegler identified himself in a column defending a lynching in rural California: “I claim authority to speak for the rabble because I am a member of the rabble in good standing.” He was a sworn enemy of FDR’s New Deal and the Democratic Party’s alliance with labor unions, which he portrayed as an international Communist conspiracy designed to undermine the freedom of average working Americans. Pegler loathed FDR so intensely that when an assassin killed the mayor of Chicago, Anton Cermak, in an attempt on FDR’s life in early 1933, he lamented that the killer “got the wrong man.” During the latter phase of his career, Pegler morphed into a fanatical anti-Semite and open fascist, a curious development considering that he had married a Jew. His screeds grew so extreme even the John Birch Society barred him from the pages of its newsletter. “Some white patriot of the Southern tier will spatter [Robert F Kennedy’s] spoonful of brains in public premises before the snow flies,” Pegler wishfully predicted in 1965. Pegler died a year after RFK’s assassination.

(The material inside the square brackets was in the original.)

Many of the points made by Blumenthal are eventually mentioned in the Wikipedia article, but as is typical, they are without context and tend to gloss-over the horror that was Pegler. For example, it writes, “In 1965, referring to Robert F Kennedy, Pegler wrote: ‘Some white patriot of the Southern tier will spatter his spoonful of brains in public premises before the snow flies.'” That is an entire paragraph; there is no context, no sense of outrage; “Yeah, the guy called for the assassination of Robert Kennedy; so what?” Perhaps many places on the Internet (especially blogs) are over-opinionated, but Wikipedia is generally under-opinionated, as it must necessarily be because it has no authority.

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