The Tribune had every reason to be proud of the cover story in its March 30 Sunday magazine: "Comeback Kid," a profile of violinist Rachel Barton Pine by Howard Reich. Previously an exceptionally private public figure, Pine made Reich privy to her estrangement from much of her family, her physical limitations since she fell beneath the wheels of a Metra train in 1995, and her regrets about her career. Reich wrote: "Medically, 'It's never over, just because of the complicated nature of the combination of my injuries,' she says. Professionally, she still longs to perform with the world's greatest ensembles. 'If I didn't get to play with those kinds of orchestras,' she adds, 'I would be heartbroken.'"
But despite Reich's accomplishment, local classical music critic Marc Geelhoed had good reason to write on his blog a few days later, "The editors of the Tribune should be ashamed of the hurt they allowed Barton Pine to endure." Geelhoed wasn't protesting Reich's story; he was disgusted by what followed when the Tribune posted it online.
Not long ago, readers' reaction to such a story would have been limited to the letters page. Two or three of the sampled letters might have praised her courage and musicianship; one might have suggested it wasn't her injuries holding her back but the fact that she was simply one fine violinist in a world of many. Vicious personal attacks would have been spiked.
But these days newspapers facilitate response that's fast, furious, and virtually unmediated. Reich's story went online Friday evening, March 28, and the first comment posted said this:
I am sick of hearing the pathetic story of Rachel Barton. Let's look at the real issues here:
1. If the violin is stuck in the doors of a train, let it go, don't let it drag you onto the tracks.
2. Taking $30M+ taxpayer dollars [her settlement from Metra] when it was truly a self caused accident epitimizes the epidemic of lawsuits in the United States today.
3. Accept your injuries, don't be whining about them 13 years later. There are hundreds of soldiers from Iraq who have lost limbs defending our country who amazingly recover in less than a year.
Step up to your own mistakes and please stop complaining.
It was signed "Call me a bonehead but" in Oak Lawn.
After "bonehead," the deluge: By the end of the weekend another 164 responses had gone up for all to read. The next several commenters had rallied to Pine's side, but then someone said, "I feel no joy in her from this interview. I only feel her self pity shining through," and someone else wrote that the Chicago Symphony won't engage her because she's a "boring violinist" and she and her husband are "bitter, angry, not nice people." Her financial settlement bugged some readers. "Andrew" in Palatine said, "I hate seeing anyone hurt, but 30 million is too much for my tax paying arce to take, for something that was really her fault."
Pine's defenders begged her assailants to go back to Reich's article, which said she'd been pinned to the door of the moving train by the strap of her violin case—she hadn't simply been unwilling to let it go. But they didn't all take the high road: One called the assailants George Bush-loving "scumsuckers... directly responsible for the deaths of 4,000 of our young men and women. They simply don't care about or value human life. Like all 'conservatives.'"
Lively reader forums create the traffic that brings in advertising dollars. But Geelhoed, a former critic for the Reader and Time Out Chicago, thought this forum found the newpaper abdicating a responsibility: "That no one was screening those comments for malicious content is inexcusable.... Any malevolent malcontent with a modem can write any graffiti he wants over a story, airing half-brained (at best) schemes and rumors and slander and, yes, libel, and get away with it without divulging so much as a first initial, entirely in the name of NEW MEDIA."
Geelhoed, who now manages the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's CSO Resound label, supposed there was something good about people getting so worked up about a classical musician. But this was a "puerile, pathetic discussion that's on the same level of effectiveness, and just as filthy, as a prison inmate flinging crap at a passing warden from inside his cell."
I got in touch with Geelhoed and asked him to elaborate. Posts that ascribed Pine's career troubles to her personality and level of talent were responding to premises of the article. Should they have been screened out?
Geelhoed didn't back off. "If they say she's difficult, they should have to corroborate that somehow. . . . Essentially, I'm arguing against the Web sites used by publications serving as places where people can make any comment they wish and expect that no one will find out who said it."
As the Tribune's innovation editor, Bill Adee oversees the Web pages. The Tribune does screen comments, Adee says, and in a couple of ways. "Comments go through an automated filter that checks for language," he explains. And once a comment's posted, readers who object to it can flag it. Two flags require an editor's attention. About ten comments on the Rachel Barton Pine thread were flagged and eventually removed, perhaps a woefully small number in Geelhoed's eyes. "The people who were commenting on the board either weren't offended or didn't understand the [flagging] tool," says Adee. "[But] I think the reason is that when somebody said something outlandish or just plain wrong, people came back at them."
Howard Reich wrote the article. Could he have monitored the give-and-take that followed it? "For Howard to have been approving comments, he'd have been there all day and all night," Adee says. Besides, "doesn't that imply that because somebody gives herself to the writer that the writer's going to take care of her?"
As Adee points out, 50 years ago—and he could as easily have said 10—people who read Reich's article would have argued about it over lunch and in their own living rooms. Some of that chatter might have been just as cruel, but it wouldn't have convened publicly to feed on itself and tarnish the Tribune. Now it's all there on display in the Tribune's house.
One reason why is legal. Think of the reaction to the Rachel Barton Pine story as a blizzard that quickly turned to deep, dirty slush. Until Chicago passed an ordinance several years ago immunizing residents who shoveled their sidewalks, it was legally safer to let the snow lie where it fell than to go out and clear it away. A snow-covered walk was God's doing—but when you shoveled it you made yourself responsible for its condition.
"It probably would seem strange to people," says Adee, "that as we currently operate, the more oversight there is the more liable you are." On the instruction of the Tribune legal department, there's no editing of comments. Letters in the paper are carefully edited, but online in the readers' threads, what you read is what the Tribune got.
Then again, what Adee says about liability might not be accurate. The 1996 Communications Decency Act contains a section that protects Web hosts who passively allow material to be posted on their Web sites, and within it is a "Good Samaritan" provision that, like Chicago's revised snow-shoveling ordinance, protects those who try to do the right thing. They can't be made liable by "any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that [the host] considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable."
But papers wonder whether stepping in to do the right thing one time will weaken their position if another time they don't. The problem, says Sam Fifer, a media attorney who handles libel cases for the Tribune (but emphasized that he was speaking here only for himself), is that there isn't a lot of case law yet to show papers just what they can and cannot do. "We're a cautious bunch," says Fifer. "So there's a certain amount of 'let's take it slow and easy.' The stakes are not insignificant."
This reading of the law supports a laissez-faire approach to reader participation, an approach that, as Fifer says, "takes less heavy lifting, I'm sure." I ask Adee how many more employees he'd need to carefully vet everything readers wanted to post. He pulls a number out of the air. "Twenty," he says, "and then you wouldn't be able to do the thing that readers on the comment boards like. They write it, they push a button, and it shows up on the site. You'd lose that. It's not a conversation anymore."
Twenty more employees! And the press believes its salvation lies in one day having far more reader activity than there is now.
"We're in the first inning of how this works," says Adee. "I know there are better ways to do this." v
For more on the media, see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites, at chicagoreader.com.