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Business as Usual

By Gregory Kohs

In previous weeks, Wikipediocracy uncovered the fact that many of the larger financial donors to the Wikipedia project have been modifying the purportedly “neutral” encyclopedia to reflect favorably on their own stories. Our investigative research was picked up by a very active thread on Slashdot, then followed by a feature story in The Daily Dot.

Thus far our research has centered on Wikimedia Foundation donors that one might describe as “mid-level” in their contribution amounts – ranging from $5,000 to $70,000. Today, our analysis turns to one of the largest donors ever to the so-called charity that operates Wikipedia. We’re talking about the Ruth and Frank Stanton Fund, or Stanton Foundation, which is a charitable trust set up by the former head of CBS and his wife, to carry out his philanthropic wishes in perpetuity. In 2008, the Stanton Foundation wrote a check for $860,000 to the Wikimedia Foundation. This donation would be increased to $1.15 million, and then followed in 2011 with another $3.6 million gift to support Wikipedia. We believe that no other single entity has given more money to the Wikimedia Foundation than the Stanton Foundation.

Because the Stanton Foundation is a bit mysterious, some background may be helpful to the reader. In 1991, former head of CBS Frank Stanton set up with his wife Ruth a charitable fund they called “The Ruth and Frank Stanton Fund”. By 2004, it had grown to $10 million in value. However, a more vast fortune was being collected in various stocks, mutual funds, and bonds, some of which were kept in the “Frank Stanton 2002 Trust”. When Frank Stanton passed away in late 2006, the monies from the fund and the trust were slowly merged into a new non-profit charity called the “Stanton Foundation”. This foundation, managed by Holtz Rubenstein Reminick (now Baker Tilly), keeps a very low profile – no website, no significant public relations, and if you didn’t know their EIN #133598005, you might have some difficulty finding their Form 990 filings. As more of Stanton’s private fortune was layered into the renamed Stanton Foundation, assets rose from $25 million in 2006, to $117 million in 2009, to $226 million in 2011.

Strangely, Wikipedia has no article about the Stanton Foundation. Only Wikipedia’s biography of the late Frank Stanton briefly mentions the eponymous foundation. In December 2008, the fund’s first historic donation to the Wikimedia Foundation was noted in Stanton’s Wikipedia biography; but in less than two hours, this mention of the donation was removed by Tilman Bayer (Wikipedia user “HaeB”). Bayer would go on to be hired by the Wikimedia Foundation in July 2011, and he is now Senior Operations Analyst. Also in December 2008, Pete Forsyth would add section headings to Stanton’s biography, and Forsyth would likewise go on to be hired by the Wikimedia Foundation between 2009 and 2011, as designer of the Wikipedia Public Policy Initiative. It’s as if caretaking the Wikipedia biography of Frank Stanton was a ticket to the payroll at the Wikimedia Foundation. As noted above, the Stanton Foundation’s investment account management is provided by Baker Tilly. There are at least two Wikipedia articles relevant to the US branches of Baker Tilly: Baker Tilly LLP and Baker Tilly Virchow Krause, LLP – both of which have been edited recently by what appear to be single-purpose and/or conflict-of-interest accounts; User:Jdelaure (July 2008, who was repeatedly admonished for adding content “clearly aimed at promoting the company” and “blatant advertising which only promotes a company”), the corporate-named User:BakerCN (editing in February 2012), User:67.163.55.2 (September 2012, from an IP address located in the firm’s headquarters city), and User:Kirby25 (November 2013).

The Belfer Center bombshell

However, these possibly conflicted tie-ins with editors who would later be paid by the Wikimedia Foundation and editors apparently from the Stanton Foundation’s investment advisory firm are small potatoes compared to what was revealed on March 21st. Ten days ago, Scott Bibby – a very active producer of content on various Wikimedia Foundation projects, who goes by the nickname “Russavia” – released a bombshell report that exposes an unprecedented financial tit-for-tat between the trustee of the Stanton Foundation, her husband at Harvard University, and the Wikimedia Foundation. Bibby’s analysis, posted on the official Wikimedia community mailing list, was so thoroughly researched and so damning, that rather than taking the usual tactic of ignoring or belittling criticism, the Wikimedia Foundation’s own Deputy Director Erik Möller issued a detailed response that acknowledged the situation as “indeed problematic”.

To understand what happened, one really needs to go back to December 24, 2006, which was the day Frank Stanton died. His wife, Ruth Stephenson Stanton, had already passed away in 1992, and they had no children to be left in possession of his vast estate. Stanton was described in his New York Times obituary as “a closed-off, cold man” who in 1950 required all CBS employees to take an oath of loyalty to the United States, and the following year created a CBS security office staffed with former FBI agents who would keep tabs on the political persuasions of employees, blacklisting certain writers and directors. (None of these facts are found in Stanton’s Wikipedia biography.) After CBS, Stanton would serve as the Chairman of the American Red Cross from 1973 to 1979. He would also serve on the board of trustees of Harvard University.

Who was caring for Stanton at the very end of his life? Without any family survivors, Stanton trusted his comfort and his fortune to his friends Elisabeth and Graham Allison. The only two trustees of the Stanton Foundation are Liz Allison (who pays herself $225,000 annually for her 30 hours per week of work for the fund) and Andrew H. Weiss (of Baker Tilly Virchow Krause, who is paid $100,000 per year for his 20 weekly hours with the foundation). Graham Allison works at Harvard University, heading up the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. And this is where it gets interesting, from the Wikimedia Foundation perspective.

.

Liz Allison began to take a very active interest in how the Wikimedia Foundation was spending the millions of Stanton’s dollars that she gave to support Wikipedia. As Bibby’s research showed, Liz was instrumental in the creation of the Wikimedia Foundation’s Public Policy Initiative, and she attended several sessions of events. (Remember, Pete Forsyth who had edited Stanton’s Wikipedia biography would then be hired by the Wikimedia Foundation to run the Public Policy Initiative.) In April 2012, as if by magic, the Wikimedia Foundation announced that they were seeking “an experienced Wikipedia editor” for a full-time fellowship at the Belfer Center. While the Wikimedia Foundation mentioned that the position would be funded from a Stanton Foundation grant, they didn’t mention that the Belfer Center is run by the husband of the Stanton Foundation’s primary paid trustee.

The Wikimedia Foundation also didn’t mention that several highly-experienced Wikipedians like Liam Wyatt (the world’s first “Wikipedian in Residence”, with the British Museum) and Pete Forsyth had vociferously warned the Wikimedia Foundation that the Belfer Center fellowship was “a terribly designed project” with “structural and ethical issues“. What were the key problems with the Belfer Center job description?

No experience? No problem!

For starters, the job description asked for “an experienced Wikipedia editor”, but the Belfer Center rejected all of the experienced Wikipedia editors that the Wikimedia Foundation pointed its way. Instead, they went with someone named Timothy Sandole, apparently because he would toe the political line at the Belfer Center, and regardless of his lack of experience ever editing Wikipedia. The Wikimedia Foundation would lodge Sandole’s $53,690 stipend in a “Fundraising” account bucket, because the “who’s paying whom” nature of this fellowship was so squirrelly.

Timothy Sandole first registered as a Wikipedia editor on July 10, 2012, which was the day applications for the Belfer Center fellowship closed. Sandole got busy on Wikipedia by first editing the article about his own grandfather. Later that month, Sandole started editing in areas that would appeal to the selection committee at the Belfer Center, by editing Wikipedia’s article about nuclear terrorism, citing materials written by the Belfer Center’s own Graham Allison. (Remember, he’s the husband of the $225,000-per-year trustee doling out the money for the Belfer Center fellowship.) As is often the case with the Wikimedia Foundation, insider connections and brown-nosing trump actual talent, and the Belfer Center selected Sandole to be their paid wiki fellow, rather than any of the “experienced Wikipedia editors” that the job description called for.

Sandole’s work on Wikipedia reflected the usual novice mistakes. For example, one might say that he plagiarized the sources he referenced. In one instance, the source said “Russia’s determination to be treated like a great power contributes to tension with the United States,” then Sandole made it his own by changing a few words, “More generally, Russia’s determination to be treated like a great power can contribute to tension with the United States.” Plagiarism? What plagiarism? Apparently, Mr. Sandole’s relationship with his boss, Graham Allison, was going along swimmingly, as Sandole jokingly planned to write a book one day, “Why Graham Allison Rocks”. And remember, the Wikimedia Foundation is considering a “full disclosure” rule for any editor who is being paid to modify Wikipedia content. It seems especially problematic that Sandole went out of his way to obscure who was paying him for his work on Wikipedia. Considering that Wikimedia Foundation employee Sarah Stierch lost her job with the Foundation when it was discovered that she had accepted a $300 editing job without disclosing it, the lesson here would seem to be that “undisclosed paid editing” is only endorsed by the Wikimedia Foundation if there’s at least an approved $50,000 price tag associated with it.

You get what you pay for

.

Thanks to the fact that Sandole produced periodic reports back to the Belfer Center about how Stanton’s money was going to good use, we are able to see just how productive Sandole was. And unfortunately, these reports do show just how productive Sandole was. For example, on April 22, 2013, Sandole said that he spent 3 hours researching “offensive realism” and the concept of “buck passing”. He then spent 6 hours authoring a draft in Microsoft Word that he would then post to Wikipedia. Wikipedia shows that the result of those 9 hours of work was about 150 words of content. That’s one word of content every 3.6 minutes; or, about $1.60 per word in this case – nice work, if you can get it.

When Tomasz Kozlowski brought Sandole to light in a scathing blog post, several weeks went by without any meaningful acknowledgment from the Wikimedia Foundation. Meanwhile, the Wikipedia community is left waiting for Möller’s promised report on this fiasco. One Wikimedia Foundation trustee, Jan-Bart de Vreede, tells everyone “I am a little concerned by the tone” expressed by various Wikipedians who were complaining about how this Belfer Center grant was handled, and de Vreede tells the Wikipedia community that the Foundation’s “entire legal department work for the Wikimedia Foundation … [not] directly for you”. But, he assures that the Wikimedia Foundation “will undoubtedly come back with some response in the coming period”. We’re waiting, Jan-Bart.

Better bang for the buck

As promised in our previous installment, we were going to reveal one Fortune 30 company that has a non-disclosed employee editor who has worked for over seven years to execute more edits to their Wikipedia article than the next 14 most-active editors combined. The company has donated over $5,000 to the Wikimedia Foundation as a “matching gift” for all of their employees who have made tax-deductible donations to support Wikipedia. What’s the company? Boeing. The editor? Fnlayson, who we suspect is Jeff Finlayson, who only describes himself on Wikipedia as “an engineer in my early 40s working in aerospace industry in Hunt./Madison, Ala”. Jeff Finlayson is a Structural Analyst at Boeing in Alabama. We’d like to congratulate Mr. Finlayson for doing a more efficient job improving Wikipedia than the Wikimedia Foundation’s own hired guns.

 

Image credits: Flickr/momo the monster, Flickr/edenpictures ~ licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

12 comments to Business as Usual

  • Kelly Martin

    While we’re poking about the Allisons, let’s also note that the Allison Family Charitable Foundation has given extensively to the Pioneer Institute — “an independent, non-partisan, privately funded research organization that seeks to improve the quality of life in Massachusetts through civic discourse and intellectually rigorous, data-driven public policy solutions based on free market principles, individual liberty and responsibility, and the ideal of effective, limited and accountable government.” Not that I begrudge the Allisons of their right to spend Frank Stanton’s money however they please, of course.

  • I was wondering how the Allisons afford their $1.1 million house on Pinehurst Road in Belmont, MA, but now that I do the math, I realize that Liz Allison pays herself $144 an hour (30 hours a week) from her dead friend Frank Stanton’s foundation. Now that’s leaving a legacy, Mr. Stanton!

    Meanwhile, Sue Gardner of the Wikimedia Foundation is wringing her spider-tattooed hands this morning, authoring a “postmortem” on this fiasco, which conveniently leaves out any mention that Liz Allison’s $53,000 grant funded support for her husband Graham’s Belfer Center.

    Link: http://outreach.wikimedia.org/wiki/Wikipedian_in_Residence/Harvard_University_assessment

    Sue just doesn’t want to “get it”, does she?

    • Tim Davenport

      Question of nepotism aside, it does seem that Sue “gets it,” based on the link you supply…

      Decisions made
      In the future, the Wikimedia Foundation will not support or endorse the creation of paid roles that have article writing as a core focus, regardless of who is initiating or managing the process.
      The Wikimedia Foundation rarely accepts restricted or semi-restricted grants, or pass-through fiscal sponsorships. The Executive Director and Chief Revenue Officer agree that in the future, any grants that are not unrestricted will receive a special high level of scrutiny before being accepted.
      The ED commits that grants that require programmatic work will be reviewed by programmatic staff before being accepted, and will be executed by programmatic staff.
      The ED plans, with the C-level team, to develop a better process for staff to escalate and express concerns about any WMF activities that staff think may in tension with, or in violation of, community policies or best practices. It will take some time to develop a simple, robust process: we aim to have it done by 1 May 2014.

      • HRIP7

        I’d like to reproduce a comment here I made in the wikimedia-l mailing list discussion, further to Sue’s post-mortem.

        As far as I am concerned, what was wrong with this situation wasn’t that the Wikimedia Foundation paid a trained academic to edit Wikipedia. I venture that most donors and members of the general public wouldn’t have a problem with that at all.

        What was wrong?

        1. The obvious appearance of impropriety given that the Stanton Foundation is probably the Foundation’s single biggest donor, and the administrator of the Stanton Foundation’s funds is married to the director of the Belfer Center (who according to the Center’s website has now taken on the former Wikipedian in Residence as a staff assistant). Whether this was the case or not, it looks like the WMF was simply used so that Mrs Allison could get Mr Allison another member of staff who would not show up on the Center’s payroll.

        2. The fact that the WMF appears to have departed from usual procedures (such as locating this Wikipedian in Residence in Fundraising, allowing the Belfer Center to write the job description, etc.) to please its biggest donor.

        3. The fact that in his reports to the WMF the Wikipedian in Residence on more than one occasion “billed” three hours of research and six hours of drafting in MS Word for a 150-word insertion in a Wikipedia article that another Wikipedian could have drafted in a fraction of an hour, and that this apparently was not questioned.

        4. The fact that the edits the Wikipedian in Residence made included conflict-of-interest and copyright violations, according to multiple Wikipedians.

        These, to me, are the real problems. I have no problem at all with the fact that the Wikimedia Foundation paid an academically qualified expert to make edits to Wikipedia. In fact, I find it disheartening that the Foundation now feels it has to state that nothing like this will ever happen again. This is throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

        Let’s for a moment look at the practicality of the idea that a Wikipedian in Residence should not personally edit Wikipedia. If Graham Allison had physically made the edits that Tim Sandole made, would this have made any material difference whatsoever to the situation?

        Clearly, it would not.

        Saying that a Wikipedian in Residence will not physically click Edit, but will merely instruct experts at his institution in how to make and source edits (and perhaps even draft them for them in MS Word …) is a very thin smokescreen.

        The material question is not whether a Wikipedian in Residence will physically edit. The question is whether the edits resulting from any WiR placement will be in line with Wikipedia policies and guidelines, including neutral point of view, conflict of interest, copyright, plagiarism, verifiability, and so on, and whether they will improve project content – making it more accurate, more readable, more up to date.

        What is required here? It’s that whichever person ultimately performs the edits receive proper training in Wikipedia policies, guidelines, editing methods, etc., so that their subject matter expertise can be leveraged to optimum effect. Standardised training courses to impart that Wikipedia-specific knowledge to subject matter experts are an area the Foundation could profitably invest in.

        Saying that Wikipedians in Residence won’t edit doesn’t address that. It merely absolves the Foundation from responsibility – a purely cosmetic exercise if the quantity and quality of the resulting edits is the same as it was in this case.

        What counts for the reading and donating public is the quality of the edits that result from a WiR placement, not who makes those edits. The Foundation should not shirk, but embrace its responsibility to use donated funds to optimum effect.

      • Tim, to me, it’s not so much about whether paid editing is taking place. It’s the fact that the Wikimedia Foundation was so money-blinded, that nobody stopped for a minute to say, “Wait. This lady who skims $225,000 a year off of Frank Stanton’s estate wants to siphon off another $53,000 so that her husband’s center at Harvard can have a paid staff member; but she wants us (the WMF) to act as a fiduciary go-between, so that it doesn’t look like a direct donation to her husband’s department at the university? I don’t think we should be a part of that. It doesn’t look good.” We note that Sandole has been (surprise, surprise) hired directly now by the Belfer Center. If Liz Allison was really and truly interested in supporting the WMF’s Public Policy Initiative with a paid Wikipedian in Residence, and she wanted to avoid a conflict of interest, she would have asked the Wikimedia Foundation to select a “short list” of various public and private universities that specialize in public policy, then allow each of them to submit proposals for how they would use a one-year paid Wikipedian in Residence. SHE DID NOT DO THAT. She said here is some money that I want to go to the Belfer Center, and we want it to look like you did a candidate search, but the Belfer Center is going to select the guy they want you to pay. And the WMF agreed to that. Sue Gardner either doesn’t “get it”, or she is deftly hiding the true shame of this deal by distracting (people like you) with the “paid roles that have article writing as a core focus” mumbo-jumbo.

  • Tim Davenport

    A very well done and thought-provoking piece. Barnstar.

  • Kelly Martin

    The question I have is why the Wikimedia Foundation does not return the balance of the grants they have from the Stanton Foundation. Yes, I know, that’s quite a lot of money, but they could afford to do so (perhaps at some pain), but such an action would leave no question as to the Foundation’s commitment to its so-called “bright line” rule. It is now painfully obvious that the Stanton Foundation’s largesse has been with ulterior motives, motives that the Foundation has made quite clear it will not accept.

    Or will it?

    • From the Daily Dot:

      “Though Kohs acknowledges paid-editing will happen, he argues that the foundation should send a serious message by forfeiting proceeds from donors caught engaging in advocacy-editing.

      “‘Indeed, this could really be a watershed moment for the Wikimedia Foundation to take a principled stand, and it could even inspire disproportionate new donations from small donors who would commend such a principled, high-ground posture,’ Kohs told the Daily Dot.

      “It may be a high-minded stance, but Jay Walsh, a spokesman for the Wikimedia Foundation, says it’s impractical.”

  • HRIP7

    The Wikimedia Foundation could counter organisations’ and individuals’ self-promotional instincts by establishing ground rules and defining the quality and quantity of editing they would like to see resulting from a Wikipedian in Residence placement. These ground rules could be spelt out in training courses and reference materials.

    Wikipedians in Residence and their hosting organisations would have to sign up to those and accept that the Foundation will withdraw financial support if the resulting edits are too paltry, or repeatedly in non-compliance with fundamental Wikipedia policies (neutral point of view, avoidance of self-promotion, undue weight and plagiarism, etc.).

    It’s very worthwhile – indeed, vital – to get academic experts on board. The lack of expert input in many topic areas is one of Wikipedia’s biggest problems. But the Foundation may have to make it crystal-clear to such experts that their contributions must be neutral – they are supposed to benefit the public, rather than their own organisations, because this is what the millions of small donors who have made up the bulk of the Foundation’s income for the past few years have in mind when they donate.

  • […] This rule could become an embarrassing problem for Tretikov, because if past history is any indicator, some of the Wikimedia Foundation’s biggest cash donors seem to regularly flout the ethical demand for disclosure when conflict of interest editing is involved. This is Wikipediocracy’s fourth installment delving into major donors who edit Wikipedia to enhance their profile, but don’t always reveal that they have a conflict of interest. The previous three installments are found here: The Thin Bright Line, Wikipedia donors feel entitled to more than a mug or a tote bag, and Business as Usual. […]

  • […] The second major WMF paid content project involved the Stanton Foundation and the Belfer Center. The trustee of the Stanton fund delivered over $50,000 to the Wikimedia Foundation, asking them to bankroll a Wikipedia editor who would be assigned to her husband’s office at the Belfer Center at Harvard University. Even though the WMF generated a job description asking for “an experienced Wikipedia editor”, the Belfer Center rejected all of the experienced Wikipedia editors pointed its way, selecting an applicant with no Wikipedia experience at all. Others later found evidence that he had plagiarized content from Belfer Center authors into Wikipedia. Embarrassed by the ensuing scandal, the WMF apologized to the community and vowed that no such paid editing arrangement would ever again be entered into. […]

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