Email inventor - premature termination of the Post's correction process

Below is a message I sent to the Washington Post's Ombudsman outling my concerns with the paper's failure to follow through on the corrective process he had outlined in his "Mea Culpa" to its readers regarding Emi Kolawole's story on the "Inventor of Email" and his initial defense of that story. This was two days after the paper decided not to publish the article it had comissioned from me. I received a prompt one line acknowledgement and promise to investigate but, a month later, nothing further has arrived. A Word file holding what Kolawole had called "the version I would like to run" is attached to this blog post. All the comments and changes shown are hers.

The oddest thing: a blogger receives a specially written article from Noam Chomsky and then decides not to run it. We may never know what he wanted to say about Ayyadurai and his claims. All in all I think this case has proved that the blogosphere and Wikipedia are now doing a better job of self correction than the Washington Post.
 

From: Thomas Haigh [mailto:thaigh@computer.org]
Sent: Wednesday, March 21, 2012 1:43 PM
To: 'ombudsman@washpost.com'
Subject: Email inventor - premature termination of the Post's correction process

Hello,

We haven’t communicated directly, but I’m the historian you mention in your “Mea Culpa” column on email invention.

That column earned you and the Post a lot of good will from the historical community. To me, and I think most other reasonable people, it seemed an entirely adequate response to the errors in your own previous column and a good start to the broader process you promised to “set the record straight and gets The Post back to where it needs to be, on the side of truth and accuracy.”

Emi Kolawole’s decision not to follow through with the rest of the process you described in your column seems likely to squander the good will you garnered.

For two weeks I made working with Kolawole to help put the record straight my top professional priority, and as a result am now being hounded by a couple of journals and the Oxford Encyclopedia of US History for some overdue reviews and articles. My folder of messages related to my contribution now holds 349 emails, including help and suggestions received from dozens of people. I spent hours on the telephone with her. The history of IT community is deeply concerned about this matter, and wants to minimize the chances of more journalists and readers falling victim to misinformation. Just last week, Ayyadurai managed to convince another journalist that he “owns the copyright to the term email, and the concept.” http://www.wgbh.org/programs/The-Callie-Crossley-Show-855/episodes/Mon-31212Innovation-Hour-USPS-Goes-Electric-36918

By Wednesday I had received a near-final version of my article back from her. We had agreed on scope, content, length, and tone. As you can see from the attached file, including her changes and comments, there were just a few minor points left to discuss. Here’s the message she sent with that file:

From: emikolawole.washpost@gmail.com [mailto:emikolawole.washpost@gmail.com] On Behalf Of Emi Kolawole
Sent: Wednesday, March 14, 2012 3:14 PM
To: Thomas Haigh
Subject: Re: Revised version

Professor Haigh -

As with most things, this took me a little longer than I anticipated.

I made a few tweaks, since the original edit had just omitted a chunk of the section on Ayyadurai. Let me know what you think. The changes, this time, are not major, but I think clarify a few things. I also had some additional sourcing quotes.

But, all in all, this is the version I would like to run.

Also, a quick reminder on the headshot and available dates/times for a chat.

Thanks,

Emi Kolawole
Editor | Innovations & On Giving

Then things progressed in an odd direction. A few hours later Kolawole called me to let me know that she’d been fact checking things with Ayyadurai, and had realized that it would not be fair to let members of her “round table” (at that point me, Crocker, Chomsky, and Ayyadurai) refer to each other my name. I made some, probably rather obvious, points about the oddness of including Ayyadurai in the cleanup and the inappropriateness of giving him the same position as the neutral expert asked by the Post to provide an authoritative opinion.

The next day she sent me a new “final version” of the article, in which Ayyadurai’s name had been removed throughout and replaced with “the individual” or something similar – although the hyperlinks could have left no doubt as to his identity.

A little later, she let me know that “there have been new developments this morning, which I will have resolved on Monday. Given your schedule demands, I will revisit this with you then. There may still be a chance to run with the piece as edited previously, featuring Ayyadurai's name, however, I just need to confirm some additional points on my end.”

Then, on Monday, I received a short message from Kolawole stating that “I have spent the weekend reading and re-reading all of the pieces in the series, and I have arrived at a decision as to how I wish to proceed. I have decided not to run your piece, Professor Chomsky's piece or Dr. Ayyadurai's. “ She also cancelled the “live chat” between the four participants that had previously been planned.

Given her previous references to “new developments” delaying a decision until Monday I am frankly skeptical about her implication that this decision was made in solitude over the weekend on the basis of repeated rereading. However that is all I’ve been told about its basis.

The one piece that she has run, by Dave Crocker, http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-innovations/a-history-of-e-mail-collaboration-innovation-and-the-birth-of-a-system/2012/03/19/gIQAOeFEPS_story.html, has nothing on its first page to explain why it is being published or to tie in to Ayyadurai. Only in the last paragraph, three clicks later on page 4, is Crocker allowed to allude to inaccurate reports regarding a program called “EMAIL.” He was not permitted to name Ayyadurai, ensuring that nobody looking for the truth about Ayyadurai’s claims will find this article via Google.

Other journalists are continuing to investigate Ayyadurai’s claims and his ongoing success in exploiting journalistic credulity.  Kolawole’s decision not to follow through with the promised process of correction seems likely to return the Post to the center of this story. The Post starts at a disadvantage here, because putting a journalist who made a serious error in charge of editorial decisions over its correction means that any judgment she makes regarding the proper tone and content of that coverage will lack credibility.

Best wishes,

Tom Haigh
www.tomandmaria.com/tom

Notes for web:

Just in the interests of accuracy, I should also say the brief email Kolawole sent me  with the decision not to publish did also include the paragraph “Many of the core components regarding the history of e-mail as it relates to the ARPANET, Xerox Parc and other large-scale innovations that you outline in your piece are interesting, but, as you've mentioned, are well documented elsewhere. Your findings and assessments regarding Dr. Ayyadurai, while compelling, are not in line with the editorial direction I wish to pursue in this series.” So there was some explanaton given. However I find this rationale unconvincing given her previous edits to the article, her previous statements to me, and her earlier acknowledgement that she was awaiting some kind of external development that would determine the fate of the article.

Kolawole's final version of my paper included only minor edits, and had she not abruptly reversed herself before I even had a chance to look properly at this edit I’m confident I could have convinced her on two points where she had flagged changes. These are

  • 1980 versus 1978 for invention. Ayyadurai’s own flagship “infographic” gives 1980 as the date for the design and operation of the first version of the system, which would fit with dating his “invention” as something has to work to be an invention. That’s why I take 1980 as the baseline throughout the article.
  • Kolawole mentioned that Ayyadurai would neither confirm nor deny ownership of the Vashiva wikipedia account I mention. However, the owner of this account made the following statement on Wikipedia: “If I say, in 1982, I, V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai received the first US Copyright for EMAIL, is that self-promotional?” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User_talk:Vashiva So I don’t see a whole lot of ambiguity there.
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