Somewhere out there in cyberspace is a guy who thinks Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas is great — and he's sharing his love with Wikipedia readers.
You know Wikipedia, that online encyclopedia where just about anyone can weigh in as an "expert" on anything? Well, our mystery writer is an expert on Andrew Thomas, and nothing else.
So, this person edited Thomas' Wikipedia bio to call him a "noted author" and a "leading authority on the criminal justice system." He also plugged Thomas' DrugFreeAz Web site, calling it "one of the most popular drug-prevention Web sites in the country."
But as for Andrew Thomas' work on an initiative seeking to ban affirmative action in Arizona, you won't read anything about that on Wikipedia. Our Andrew Thomas fan deleted that reference. He also removed an allegation that Thomas has never actually tried a felony case in his life — something frequently whispered but never officially confirmed. Thomas' Super Fan removed that bit of speculation twice.
Now, I can't tell you the identity of Thomas' unofficial hagiographer, not with absolute certainty. Thomas' spokesman didn't respond to requests for comment, and Wikipedia keeps its contributors' information private.
But I can tell you this:
• The writer in question has a Wikipedia user name of "Apt37." Andrew Thomas' middle initial is "P" — and he was 37 years old when he was elected county attorney.
• Apt37 has never touched a Wikipedia page other than the one profiling Thomas.
• In his Wikipedia edits, Apt37 once referred to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office as "my office."
There are only two possibilities.
Either Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas is obsessively rewriting his own Wikipedia page, or he's got one very tedious stalker.
Any bets on which it could be?
For the elderly, or the proudly Luddite, here's a little more background: Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia, with a twist. Rather than hire academics to write the content, Wikipedia allows just about anyone to pen an entry, or edit someone else's, at any time. The result is a constantly updating work-in-progress.
It's become wildly popular. Google just about anything, and Wikipedia is one of the first hits that comes up.
There's good reason for that. Wikipedia can be wonderful for getting up-to-the-minute information on breaking news, not to mention interesting links about practically anything.
But like anything on the Internet, the site can fall prey to the obsessive . . . and the downright vicious.
John Siegenthaler, a former editor at USA Today, was shocked to learn that his Wikipedia bio claimed he'd been a suspect in the murder of not just one, but two Kennedys. When Siegenthaler complained, Wikipedia determined that the allegation was completely fabricated. Some guy in Tennessee had altered Siegenthaler's biography as a prank — and the fake information stayed online four months before a friend of Siegenthaler's stumbled onto it.
The weird thing about Apt37's strenuous efforts is that nothing similar has happened to Thomas' page.
Really, I would hardly blame anyone for hopping online to correct some gross inaccuracies. But the Thomas page hasn't attracted libelous goons; from the beginning, it's been fairly straightforward. Instead of clearing up misinformation, Apt37 seems more obsessed with keeping the page 100 percent positive.
Don't take my word for it. Thanks to Wikipedia's policy of full disclosure, each and every change is tracked online. The initial page written about Thomas (the very bottom entry at http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Andrew_Thomas_%28prosecutor%29&action=history) was penned February 8, 2007, and contains nothing nasty. In fact, the entry appears to have been modeled closely on Thomas' official biography on the county attorney's Web site.
It wasn't good enough for our mystery friend Apt37. Seven months later, Apt37 started editing the thing, with a series of edits designed to make the page conform exactly to Thomas' official bio.
As a young lawyer, Thomas didn't just work for a "law firm," as the page initially stated. Apt37 insisted that he worked for a "large" law firm. Apt37 also added links to a bunch of dull information about various Web sites started by Thomas' office and took out the bio's single line about the controversy surrounding Thomas' anti-immigration efforts. The eager Apt37 even uploaded an official photo of Thomas.
This being the Internet, the information didn't stay static. Apt37 soon had a battle on his hands, and from September 17 to December 11, he edited the page no less than five times — and attracted a dozen exchanges with two or three citizen editors.
You can track his edits on the "history" page:
• Apt37 removed what he called "inaccurate smearing attacks" — namely, the fact that Thomas used to work for Wilenchik & Bartness, and that after he was elected, the firm received numerous county contracts. The information was true, but Apt37 removed it, twice.
• Apt37 obsessed over information about Thomas' prosecution of Matthew Bandy, a high school student charged with child porn possession. The case drew outrage from civil libertarians and a lengthy exploration on ABC's 20/20 ("Doubting Thomas," January 25, 2007). Apt37 first removed all mention of the case and then, when it reappeared on the site, tweaked the description to include plenty of caveats. "I edited the latest additions to the Bandy section," Apt37 wrote, "which my office disputes."
• In November, a user noted — accurately — that a pair of citizens had launched a recall campaign against Thomas. "If the recall effort is going to be added in here, it needs to be pointed out it has little chance of succeeding," Apt37 wrote.
Technically, the edits are permissible. "There's no policy that a living person can't adjust their biography or even write their own," says Jay Walsh, a Wikipedia spokesman.
But it's not the way the encyclopedia is intended to work. Walsh stresses that citizen editors are supposed to be neutral. And just about anyone would admit it's hard to achieve neutrality when you're as enamored of your subject as Apt37 is. (See that bit about Andrew Thomas being a "leading authority on the criminal justice system.")
At one point, another user complained about Apt37's edits, "The user APT is clearly altering this Wikipedia page to remove any negative information about Thomas. The article should include both positive and negative." That's exactly right — one good reason why we need Wikipedia biographies in addition to a politician's official Web site.
It's not as though Thomas is the first politician suspected of having his finger on the "delete" key. There was a pretty big scandal a year ago when researchers determined that a bunch of congressional offices were editing their own pages. Wouldn't you think Thomas, or Apt37, would have learned from that one? Better to let your biography show your warts than to prove just how obsessive you are about removing them.
But here's the saddest part.
All those Apt37 edits last fall were made in the evenings: 9 p.m., 10 p.m., even 12:57 a.m.
So, while Thomas' appointment of his former boss as a special prosecutor against New Times backfired, and a groundswell of public anger forced Thomas to fire the guy, Apt37 hunkered over his computer, long into the night, systematically deleting the controversy.
He couldn't get the real media to stop dogging Andrew Thomas' record. He couldn't stop the flood of negative coverage.
But on Wikipedia, Apt37 could rewrite the story. With his persistent edits, Thomas could remain a valiant crime fighter, not the guy who hired his old boss for jobs beyond his ability.
Ultimately, though, the critics won. For all Apt37's efforts last fall, today Thomas' Wikipedia bio contains just as much controversy as ever.
Really, it kind of makes me feel sorry for Andrew Thomas.
I mean, Apt37.
So here's the one thing more pathetic than Apt37 obsessing over Andrew Thomas's online biography: It's the Arizona Republic, which ought to know better, serving as an unwitting platform for paid lobbyists.
Journalists like to get all high and mighty over Web sites like Wikipedia. You can't trust contributors because of their biases, we harrumph. Look at politicians editing their own biographies. Look at public relations experts creating fake user names to praise their own products.
But in the age of the Internet, newspapers are hardly better. These days, their goal is to let community voices be heard. Inevitably, that means people with troubling conflicts can get their voices into the mix — and in the Republic, recently, without any disclosure of their conflict.
Every Sunday, the Viewpoints section runs a feature called "Plugged In," a series of 100-word blurbs from "people plugged into the news and politics of the day." (It's supposed to draw attention to the Republic's community bloggers, although many entries appear not to have run online first.)
On February 17, the section featured commentary from Joanie Flatt, a frequent contributor described as working in "public relations" and a "community advocate." Flatt's contribution was a rant about Republican legislators' opposition to speed cameras.
"The governor figured out that, by expanding the popular and successful Loop 101 speed cameras to other parts of the state, those who choose to speed 11 mph or more over the limit could make a 'behavior-related contribution' to the general fund," Flatt wrote. "This could raise $90 million, which could help pay for law-enforcement services."
Yeah, she's accurately describing the governor's proposal. But what's this "popular" and "successful" bit? The jury is still out on the Loop 101 cameras' impact — and I certainly wouldn't call the cameras popular. Frankly, the GOP is right to oppose the governor's plan. People driving a mere 11 mph over the speed limit should hardly find the entire state budget balanced on their backs.
But I'm sure things would look different if I were on the payroll of one of the photo-enforcement companies here in Arizona. After all, they stand to make millions if the governor's plan goes through.
Flatt just happens to be a paid lobbyist for one of the companies.
She never disclosed that fact. And neither did the Republic — either online or in print.
When I reached Flatt last week to discuss the matter, she confirmed that she's a lobbyist for American Traffic Solutions and that she does public relations for them, too. But the 100-word limit for Plugged In makes it difficult to fit in disclosures, she says, and so she opted against it.
"Everybody knows my client list," Flatt told me. "I didn't even think about it."
Well, not exactly everybody. I'd warrant that few Republic readers had any inkling that Flatt is on the photo-enforcement payroll. In fact, though Flatt told me that the Republic editors were well aware of her conflict, Viewpoints editor Joe Garcia says just the opposite.
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"[H]ad I known one of Joanie's clients was linked to the topic of this specific blog, I would have asked her to disclose that fact in print," he wrote in an e-mail. "We've since talked and, in the interest of full disclosure, Joanie has agreed to do so in the future, as she has done in some other past blogs."
I don't think that's good enough. For one thing, this wasn't just one blog post among many: Flatt confirms that the item never ran online. Instead, she submitted it specifically for the Sunday Republic. For another, as Flatt confirms, she's also hosted fundraisers for Governor Napolitano in the past. Flatt wasn't just pushing a proposal she has a financial interest in; she was praising a politician who may well have listened to her push it in the first place.
The moral of the story? If the Republic really wants Plugged In to feature contributors from all walks of life, as Garcia claims in his e-mail, it should ban paid lobbyists from being featured in the section.
Flatt is right: With a 100-word limit, full disclosure of all conflicts does seem pretty onerous for a lobbyist/fundraiser/public relations executive. Better to steer clear of all such of conflicts on the front end than waste space trying to enumerate them.