The mild-mannered Chicago violinist Rachel Barton Pine found herself in a vicious, brutish corner of the internet last week, a pit filled with coarse comments about the Metra accident which cost her the free use of her legs and mobility, as well grossly deceptive comparisons between her physical loss and that of soldiers in the Iraq War. She was also slandered as a violinist who used the celebrity of her accident to further her career, as well as undeserving of the financial award she received after taking Metra and Northwestern Transportation to court. This ugly redoubt of the internet was that heretofore unknown hive of disrepute and slander, the comments section of the Chicago Tribune's Sunday Magazine.
The occasion for these outbursts (171 comments as of 8:30pm Monday) was Howard Reich's story on Barton Pine, catching up with her in Santa Fe 13 years after her accident and checking in on her career. No big deal. Far from a mere puff piece, Reich's 6,000-word story went into detail about her family's financial struggles growing up, and he delved into the minutiae of the court case that resulted in Barton Pine receiving, according to the story, roughly $15 million in compensation after taxes and court costs.
Now, none of this is worthy of having the very first commenter---"Call me a bonehead but" from Oak Lawn, Ill.---write "If the violin is stuck in the doors of a train, let it go, don't let it drag you onto the tracks." Not only is that not what happened, it's not what Reich wrote happened. Then there was "Mitch," who wrote:
"She hit the lottery for $30 million, but the real reason she is so embittered to this day is that she "only" got $30 million when she actually had sued Metra for $600!! million. Who the hell did she think she was...the next Mozart, Beethoven and Bach all rolled into one? Kids today suffer from a delusional sense of entitlement."
It takes serious intellectual failings to equate lottery winnings with financial gain that comes at the cost of numerous surgeries, bone injuries, and the inability to walk unaided for the rest of your life.
In this same vein was "Booksdates," who claimed, "I'm in the business and she is on a cut from one of the acts that I handle. Average at best." Another chimed in later to claim that she was snobbish to them at some function at the Sears Tower. Supposedly her contract stipulated that no one was allowed to talk to her.
If anyone knows of such a request for a classical violinist, please email me, because that claim does not pass any sniff test known to man.
I first heard of Barton Pine when she was soloing in Beethoven's Violin Concerto with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra around 2002. Before the concert, I knew nothing of her accident. When she came out on crutches and made her way to the custom bench she uses, I thought she had a birth defect, and only found out about the accident after the concert, when a friend from Chicago told me the story. After the concert, she was at a reception and mingled with everyone who was there and was perfectly gracious. The contact we've had since I started writing about music in Chicago has never been less than cordial.
To their credit, several readers jumped in to defend Barton Pine's integrity and her playing ability. But they shouldn't have had to, because those comments should never have been published on the website of a reputable news outlet, which the Tribune certainly is. The editors of the Tribune should be ashamed of the hurt they allowed Barton Pine to endure. That no one was screening those comments for malicious content is inexcusable.
Now, take a deep breath. I know the internet is an amazing tool of democracy and for creating communities and blah blah blah lolcats facebook britny speers nude. I don't care. Media outlets have to step up and stand for something, and unmoderated comments sections aren't cutting it. No newspaper allows anonymous letters to be published in print. Yet 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.
Further, I know that Barton Pine is a public figure, and that it's supposedly to the good that people get this hot and bothered about a classical musician. But few of these commenters had anything valid to say about her musicmaking, other than to criticize her anonymously, with most people impugning her motives and questioning her judgment. It's 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.
"Democracy is rude," Michael Miner wrote this week in his column in the Chicago Reader. Rudeness has its uses, and it's a great way to grab attention. But there's a difference between the rudeness I've championed here in the form of Hunter S. Thompson's political coverage and that of the drooling monsters that populate that particular Tribune comments section. And Miner wasn't actually arguing in favor of rudeness in print, only saying that it has a way of getting things accomplished that politeness doesn't.
What set Thompson apart from run-of-the-mill jackassery was that he actually reported those stories. (Or reported what he didn't make up, but the grains of truth were there, along with some buds and stems.) He tracked down the principal actors and those on the periphery and cobbled together enough facts such that he could sort it out and create something resembling a reality. This is not how the average reader works. The average reader knows little to nothing of the inner workings of a story or its details, and has no more right to comment on it anonymously in the writer's publication than a wall should decide what color it gets painted.
If the Tribune and other major newspapers are going to survive and prosper in this era, they must apply some standards to these comments sections and actually make them into something the paper is comfortable putting its name to. I argued strongly against allowing anonymous posts when Time Out launched its blog, only to be told that if they didn't allow anonymous posts, there would be no posts. (No, TOC is not a newspaper. The anecdote is still telling when it comes to a media outlet's priorities.)* In this piece from the Online Journalism Review responding to the Barton Pine profile, Roger Niles points out that media entities gain and lose credibility based on everything on their site, and those comments do nothing for the Tribune's. (h/t to aP for the OJR link)
Require names. Require working email addresses. Have your writers weigh in during the discussion, make it clear through some icon that denotes their presence that they are part of the publication, and create an actual forum and guide a discussion. Hire some tough editors to sort through the incoming comments and vet them with as much tenacity as Big Al and his handlebar moustache bring to manning the door at the Green Mill. Your readers will thank you, and might even start taking you more seriously.
There's a nice picture of Big Al standing watch right here.
*Edit: TOC's web editor wrote in to say that, to his credit, he aggressively moderates the comments that appear on TOC's online content, including anonymous comments.