One morning, Lenora Brown, a concert pianist and longtime adjunct professor of music at the University of Utah, woke up and found herself the center of unwanted attention.
Due to no fault of her own, she had been sucked into the world of Internet blogging. Deseret News readers were having a field day with her on the newspaper's Internet comments section. They wrote that Brown needed help from a therapist. They wrote that she was rude and jealous. They wrote that she "has problems." They said she was "small and stupid." She was given the electronic version of a public thrashing. Her bosses were calling her for an explanation.
All of this because Brown had posted a comment in the readers' online comments section that was critical of professional pianist Greg Brown (no relation), who also happens to be a doctoral student at the U.
There was just one problem: She didn't do it.
It all began when the Deseret News published a profile on Aug. 31 about the 5 Browns, the Juilliard-trained, all-sibling piano quintet from Utah of which Greg is the oldest member. As is the case with most newspapers, the Deseret News offers readers the opportunity to post Internet comments on its stories. One reader who did so identified himself or herself as Leonora Brown. The comment went as follows:
"Although the 5 Browns' music can be entertaining, it does not represent academically accepted interpretation of the great composers. As a longtime music professor and performer (Brown/England Piano Duo), let me assure you that the Browns are neither gifted nor blessed with exceptional talent. Perhaps in time they will reach a point of virtuosity. It takes many years to understand the technical aspects of this music."
Taken at face value, it was the equivalent of Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham sending the Deseret News a comment that was critical of one of his players.
Brown knew nothing of any of this until her bosses at the U. contacted her for an explanation. Brown checked the Web site to see for herself.
"I was just sick," she says. "I could not believe that something like that could be put in there. They made it look like I wrote that comment. First of all, I don't even talk or write that way. Somebody was trying to sound intellectual because they figured that's how professors talk. Second, I did not say that. I would never say something like that about a student. I am an advocate for the student and want to help them. I would do nothing destructive or harmful."
What bothered her most was that, after 34 years of teaching at the university, she felt her name had been damaged instantly. Students talk, and word spreads quickly. "Students might think poorly of me for something like that," she says. "That's very damaging when I've tried so hard to be a friend to students."
This is the world that newspapers live in now. Newspaper reporters are held to a high standard of ethics. They must strive for accuracy and fairness, and they put their name on what they write. Bloggers are held to no such standards. Newspapers try to referee the comments section and try to apply some standards there, but, in reality, there is a big element of trust here trust that readers have a conscience and are truthful in their comments and identity.
As soon as Brown contacted the Deseret News, the offending comment was deleted from the site, as well as the ensuing attacks on her character. Deseret News Managing Editor Rick Hall explained the comments section this way:
"Readers want to be engaged," he says. "The communication is two-way. Rather than having somebody just tell them something, they want to weigh in and create a marketplace of ideas, or a town-hall forum, electronically, and we think that's a good thing.
"But there is a problem. In a town-hall forum, if somebody stands up to speak, you recognize him or her, but online there is no way to do that. We can't immediately verify identity. I think we go further than a lot of Web sites. We review the comments. We get rid of a lot of personal attacks and things that are off topic. No one believes this, but the worst stuff never gets on there."
In this case, someone tried to make both Browns look bad and succeeded. For her part, Lenora Brown, who had never met Greg Brown, wrote an e-mail to the young pianist to explain what happened.
Greg Brown wrote a kind reply: "Thank you so much for your sweet e-mail. I can't tell you how bad I feel that you got dragged into all of this. When someone first sent me the comment, I felt pretty confident that it wasn't really you behind the name, but I'm really glad that it's now cleared up 100 percent. ... I have informed my siblings of the forgery, and we all feel nothing but horrible that someone would harm you in their sorry attempts at insulting us."By the way, for the record, Lenora is impressed that Greg Brown is pursuing his doctorate at the U. while pursing his professional performing and recording career. "How wonderful that he would come here after he's been to Juilliard and had so many wonderful experiences and is still interested in furthering his education and not just riding on his laurels. Obviously, he's serious about learning, and that says a lot about him and the family."
Doug Robinson's column runs on Tuesday. Please send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.