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Cheap PR for pols

Staff members for a Republican congressman, carefully perusing his biography on Wikipedia - the free-form, online encyclopedia - recently happened upon the insertion that "he likes to beat his wife and children." The Web's collective form of fact-gathering tends to invite such sliming. But now, a more tricky problem is emerging - the editing of legislative biographies by staffers and loyalists devoted to gilding the incumbent.

The deletion of unattractive facts by apple-polishers became so obvious that Wikipedia's detectives temporarily blocked some Senate addresses from making entries. The electronic addresses of Senate offices turn out to be more easily traced than those of House members, so there is no comparable record of protective edits by lower house scriveners.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein's net worth was mysteriously deleted from her biography, along with the $190,000 fine she had to pay for not disclosing that her 1990 campaign loans were guaranteed by her husband. Wikinews, the encyclopedia's arm of corrective reporters, also found Sen. Joseph Biden's past problems with campaign plagiarism charges evaporate, thanks to someone at one of his office computers. Members of Sen. Norm Coleman's staff massaged a description of him as a liberal college Democrat; he morphed into an "activist," then merely an "active college student." A reference to Sen. Tom Harkin's discredited claims to have flown combat missions in Vietnam disappeared.

An entry on Wikipedia is still almost guaranteed to be closer to reality than a compilation of campaign commercials. But when everybody is invited to contribute to legislators' biographies, the most interested participants are almost always going to be the people on their payroll.