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One of the guiding principles for Wikipedia, the free online community-generated encyclopedia, is the “neutral point of view.” According to Wikipedia’s own explanatory page, “NPOV (Neutral Point Of View) is a fundamental Wikipedia principle which states that all articles must be written from a neutral point of view, representing views fairly and without bias.”

The problem is how to make that theory work in practice, especially with topics that are politically sensitive or controversial. The way Wikipedia operates is that anyone — yes, you! — can edit the pages of Wikipedia, with a legion of editors overseeing changes to make sure vandalism or blantant mistruths don’t sneak in. And while the popularity and breadth of Wikipedia’s coverage has boomed, there have also been problems with inconsistent quality and outright revisionist history when it comes to politicians and their staffers.

So I thought it might be instructive to consider the entry for George W. Bush and how difficult it would be to create a “neutral point of view” for our polarizing president. Remember, the object is to create something neutral and not totally neutered of controversy. The idea is to state the various sides without picking a side, or as the NPOV entry states, “One can think of unbiased writing as the cold, fair, analytical description of debates.”

Under the subsection, “Bush Before His Presidency,” the following passage describes his National Guard service:

In May 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, he entered the Texas Air National Guard. He trained in the guard for two years, where he was among the last to learn to fly the F-102, a plane not used in Vietnam and due to be retired.

While this could be true, why would it be important to know that he was “among the last to learn to fly the F-102”? Is this a commentary on Bush flying an outdated plane? Is it an unbiased point of view? Check out the Encarta encyclopedia’s version of the same time period (note that Encarta lets people edit its pages but with editor approval):

Upon completing college, [Bush] became eligible for the military draft. To meet his service obligation, Bush enlisted in the Texas Air National Guard in 1968. He told the admitting officer that he wanted to become a pilot like his father, who was a highly decorated Navy flier in World War II (1939-1945). He did his basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, and entered a pilot-training program at Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, Georgia. He received favorable reports from his superiors, attained the rank of second lieutenant, and was certified to fly the F-102 jet fighter during training missions in the South and along the Gulf Coast. After Bush failed to take a required annual physical examination in 1972, however, he lost his certification to fly. Bush remained in the Air National Guard until 1973.

Encarta doesn’t make hay over Bush being one of the last to fly the F-102, and instead notes patriotically how Bush wanted to fly a jet like his father. While Encarta makes scant mention of Bush’s service, Wikipedia has an entire separate entry just for George W. Bush military service controversy.

And Wikipedia also has an entire subsection titled Alcohol and drug abuse for Bush, something Encarta doesn’t mention at all in its lengthy four-page entry. Again, after a lot of arguments on the subject, Wikipedia created a whole new entry just for George W. Bush substance abuse controversy.

Isn’t the creation of these special pages an act of bias in and of itself? Why isn’t there a special page on Bush’s time as governor of Texas or on his religious beliefs? It’s true that Wikipedia is trying to take these more controversial aspects of an already controversial president’s entry off the table, in a way, to make the main entry less controversial. But the final effect feels biased.

In comparison to Wikipedia, Encarta at times sounds like a Bush cheerleader. For example, under the “Bush’s Second Term” heading, this line describes the re-election: “On Election Day, Bush soundly defeated Kerry and was elected to a second term.” The term “soundly defeated” only works in comparison to 2000, as previous GOP victories were by larger electoral and popular margins — something Encarta even points out.

So where is the middle ground, and can Wikipedia or other encyclopedias find it? The search for a “neutral point of view” mirrors the efforts of journalists to be objective, to show both sides without taking sides and remaining unbiased. But maybe this is impossible and unattainable, and perhaps misguided. Because if you open it up for anyone to edit, you’re asking for anything but neutrality.

So what did Wikipedia do ultimately with its George W. Bush entry? There’s an image of a little padlock on the top of the page with this explanation: “As a result of recent vandalism, or to stop banned editors from editing, editing of this page by new or unregistered users is temporarily disabled.”

What do you think? Is there a way to explain the life and times of George W. Bush with a neutral point of view? Point us the way. Also note that this is informally Wikipedia Week here at MediaShift, with the Your Take question on Wikipedia, and an upcoming email discussion between Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and conservative blogger Robert Cox.

UPDATE: Here are the other Wikipedia Week articles on MediaShift:

Email Debate: Wales Discusses Political Bias on Wikipedia

Believers, Negativists Debate Wikipedia’s Trustworthiness

MySpace, Wikipedia Cope With Growing Pains

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