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Bob Watch 

We read him so you don't have to.

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A recent article about pedophiles called the Internet a "masked ball," a godsend for those who prefer to conceal their true natures. That premise is half right, since cyberdisguises often work. But like the aging pervert rouging his cheeks to appeal to youth, sometimes trying to conceal flaws only draws our horrified attention to them.

Take Bob Greene in the America Online edition of the Chicago Tribune. Let us compare the two Bobs: PrintBob, peering anxiously out at the scary world from the Tempo section four days a week, and CyberBob, a sleeker, more expansive guy who's available 24 hours a day.

CyberBob certainly looks happier. He's not constructed in the tiny, closely cropped black-and-white image that traps PrintBob in his Tempo corner. CyberBob stretches out in a big, formal color portrait--tie rakishly loosened, a frosting of gray on the wig, well on his way to a stolid, Bill Kurtis-like late middle age. Here, CyberBob is masquerading as a hip journalist who does not view all people, trends, and objects created after 1955 as deadly viruses to be eradicated like smallpox and kept safely in a freezer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

PrintBob's history is a blur to most readers, who are only vaguely aware of his descent from dynamic young columnist to self-parodying scold. CyberBob's readers are not so blissfully ignorant, since Bob's biography is there at a click of the mouse on "About Bob Greene."

It is a curious document. The only recent accomplishments are Bob's best-selling pabulary books. Anything related to his column is a decade or two old. "He has conducted headline-making interviews with Patricia Hearst while she was in prison, Richard Nixon after he resigned the presidency and mass murderer Richard Speck," the biography notes, as if it had been typeset in 1978. The profile starts with a plug from Playboy magazine: "Water covers two-thirds of the earth and Bob Greene covers the rest." That must be dated, since today the quote would have to read, "Water covers two-thirds of the earth and Bob Greene covers Baby Richard."

The true scope of PrintBob's Baby Richard fetish can escape readers due to PrintBob's fleeting 24-hour life. Not so for CyberBob in his virtual immortality. CyberBob's old columns are delivered to readers in a numbing, monthlong block. Seeing the past 17 headlines--"A time for bravery," "Richard's most important day," and so on--confused readers might think they've called up a deservedly lost Victorian serialization.

Never before has Bob focused his revolting pity so steadily. Baby Richard is his perfect story. Besides the heart-wrenching facts of the case itself, Bob can deflect critics of his wheel-spinning histrionics by dismissing them as "the people who can't find space in their hearts to care about what he is going through."

Bob can write about Baby Richard forever, and presumably will. But what Bob fails to realize is that he's long since left column writing, jumped over social protest, and landed in performance art. He chides the world's "tiny attention span" and urges bored readers to join him in his fixation. "Have you read the complete transcripts from the original court hearings?" he demands, as if we too are being paid to research his columns. "Have you read the complete pleadings before the Illinois Appellate Court?"

Both PrintBob and CyberBob have it all wrong. Readers' choices regarding Baby Richard are not limited to callous indifference or near-schizophrenic obsession. There are other options. We can feel sorry for the boy, truly, hope he's OK and can see his adoptive family again. We can even read about him, say, once a week to keep up with his case. Then we can go on with our lives.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration/Jeff Heller.

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