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:firstname.lastname@example.org]
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: email@example.com [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org] On Behalf Of Emi Kolawole
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.
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