secret_history (2007-15)

What's Important

How a dynamic former Knoxvillian who died 60 years ago can raise questions about our most democratic database

by Jack Neely

A few weeks ago, the New York Times ran a Sunday feature about the evolution of United Artists, the old studio that hyperactive thespian Tom Cruise seems likely to dominate for the near future. Though the article included only a little about that Hollywood studio's deep history, it illustrated UA's origins with a photograph of its founders in 1920, and a photocopy document listing their five names. Some of them are icons so familiar that schoolkids today still recognize some of them: Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith. Those four were mentioned by name in the caption. But there were five names on the UA founding document reproduced beneath the portrait--and there was another guy in the picture, standing right behind the seated Chaplin, next to Fairbanks. He was at least as important as the others were, but he wasn't mentioned in the caption. I recognized him, though I'm not sure I would have if he weren't from Knoxville.

His name was William Gibbs McAdoo. He was attorney and co-founder of United Artists. Long before he ever got involved with Chaplin and them, he had been a kid in Knoxville, son of a prominent local attorney and UT professor of the same name and his wife, a locally prominent fiction writer and editor. During the Victorian era, they lived on Third Avenue, on the north side of town.

The young McAdoo became an attorney with a penchant for bold business ventures, and established the first electric streetcar system in Knoxville, also one of the first in the South. And then, after he was forced to sell it, he attempted to establish the second electric streetcar system in Knoxville, to compete with the first. When the police and sheriff's deputies got involved, it set off a bloody riot in 1893 that would be remembered as the Battle of Depot Street.

Then he moved to New York and directed the construction of the first subway tunnel underneath the Hudson River, connecting New York to New Jersey. Then he was the wartime U.S. Secretary of the Treasury under President Wilson and also the founding chairman of the new Federal Reserve Board. Through deft maneuverings, the vigorous progressive played a major role in establishing the United States as a major financial presence on the world market.

It was after all that that McAdoo helped found United Artists, a major new studio at a critical moment in movie history. Then McAdoo became a U.S. Senator from California who mounted two or three plausible campaigns for U.S. president. He made historian Theodore White's short list of men who should have become president, but didn't. He was arguably one of the most influential non-presidents of the 20th century.

Still, his image--he had a goofy sort of face, like a vaudeville comic--perhaps wasn't recognizable to the Times' caption writer.

Maybe it's forgivable. There have been several books published about McAdoo in the last century or so, including one he wrote himself, the appropriately titled Crowded Years , which includes an inspiring description of urban Knoxville in 1877. On top of everything else, he was also a good writer. But the books about McAdoo are not very handy today. At the library, all of them are either in deep storage or available only on a reference basis on the rarefied shelves McClung Collection. To be fair, there's probably not much demand.

Then I had a crazy notion. I looked McAdoo up on Wikipedia.

I was relieved that he was at least present and accounted for, with 686 words about him, a little more than I'd feared. It doesn't mention his role in the founding of United Artists. And, of course, the entry has some puzzling emphases, and predictable errors. As of this week, Wikipedia has McAdoo getting married eight years before he was born.

So Wikipedia has errors. Even though that seems a particularly weird one, we all make errors. We're human beings. We're a big error-making club. To be fair, one study does suggest that within certain disciplines, like science and math, Wikipedia's information is roughly as accurate as that of Encyclopedia Britannica . That hasn't been my experience with its historical entries. I recently ran across an essay about Wikipedia's manifold errors in its entry about Alexander Hamilton, in which the web encyclopedia earned the moniker, "the bastard child of American Idol ." You probably heard a few weeks ago about the esteemed Wikipedia editor known as Essjay who was until early this year considered an expert on world religions. Contributor of some 16,000 entries to Wikipedia, he identified himself in a New Yorker story last year as a tenured professor in a major university. And he was later unmasked as a 24-year-old community-college dropout in Kentucky.

It's always seemed charitable of Wikipedia to call its anonymous contributors "editors." Out here, when anonymous kids alter something without permission, they're called "vandals."

But there's something maybe more insidious about Wikipedia than its factual errors. People broadly decide not only what's true and what's false; they also, in effect, vote on how much emphasis each subject deserves. In other encyclopedias, the length accorded to an entry tends to indicate the relative importance of the subject.

On a weird hunch, just after looking up Wikipedia on McAdoo, I looked up another Southerner who through an unusual series of circumstances also rose to national prominence in the 20th century. Though Anna Nicole Smith lived only half as long as McAdoo did, her Wikipedia entry is over 4,000 words long. That is, it's about six times as long as McAdoo's. On a per career-year basis, she outdoes the former treasury secretary by a factor of more than 12.

And to think she was never even chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. Paris Hilton's is almost as long. It's safe to say that pop stars tend to get much more emphasis in Wikipedia than mere politicians and founders of major institutions.

Yes, I know, it's all democratic. The People decide how long Wikipedia entries are going to be. The People know what's best.

I've heard that, in grading term papers, some high-school teachers now accept Wikipedia as a reputable source, a modern Britannica, acceptable as a reference. A kid who trusts Wikipedia could easily look at the entry for Anna Nicole Smith and conclude that she's six times more significant in world history than William Gibbs McAdoo. And maybe he'd be right. After all, it's the 21st century. The People decide what's important.

I wish the People paid attention. I have the same thought after every Election Day.