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Ann Landers Has Taken On the Internet

Times Staff Writer

In her 40 years as an advice columnist, Ann Landers has counseled the lovelorn, offered tips on child rearing and shared her meatloaf recipe. Now the feisty Landers, who celebrates her 78th birthday on the Fourth of July, is taking on the Internet, warning her readers of the dangers she believes are lurking in cyberspace.

In one of the more extreme letters she has run recently, a 45-year-old Bakersfield woman wrote of being raped by a man she first met online. More typical are the letters that tell of marriages wrecked when what started as an Internet friendship became a real-life romance.

Last week, U.S. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) wrote to Landers in defense of his fellow cybernauts.

“You have recently printed letters from people whose spouses have left them for someone they met on the Internet,” Leahy wrote. “As a 55-year-old who has been happily married for 33 years, I am living proof that the vast majority of us Internet fans use our computers to browse newspapers, see the treasures of the Sistine Chapel, check the weather in Vermont or read the latest Batman comic.”

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In her typically blunt fashion, Landers responded to Leahy: “You are a superb senator. . . . As an advice columnist, however, you aren’t so hot.

“The Internet is tailor-made for con men, the lonely and the bored. The word from here is ‘beware.’ ”

Predictably, Landers has been taking some knocks from Netizens, but their criticism is likely to have little effect.

“I have total freedom to print what I choose in my space,” she said.

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Landers discussed her views on cyberspace with Times reporter Julie Pitta:

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Q: I’ve noticed a number of columns on cyberspace recently. Are you doing these columns because you have a particular interest in the Internet, or are you being inundated with letters about the Internet?

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A: I have no particular interest at all. I do not have a computer. I’m not interested in that sort of thing at all. They had me on the Internet last Sunday because there were several people who wanted to know what I thought about it. And they put some questions to me on Sunday, and, in fact, for about 45 minutes I was on. What they did was they had the readers call in and ask me questions, some quite serious and others about how to hang the toilet paper.

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Q: Did they ask you what you thought of the Internet?

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A: Yes, they asked, “What do you think of it?” and I said, “It’s a nice toy, as far as I’m concerned.” It’s wonderful for the lonely. There are a great many lonely people out there, and it makes them feel that they’re a part of the living world. They can talk to somebody. Somebody will talk to them. And I think it’s wonderful. The only thing is, is it does have its dangers.

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Q: It seems that you’ve been emphasizing the dangers in your columns. But in talking to you, it doesn’t seem like you are that much of a critic. Why have your columns been so negative?

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A: What I have to do is warn people. When I get letters from women who tell me that after 15 years of marriage they are leaving their husbands or from men who are leaving their wives, then I feel it is my responsibility to warn people against this sort of thing.

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Q: How many letters like that have you been getting per week or per month?

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A: Well, it’s hard to tell. It’s just started up in the last several weeks. I would say anywhere from 75 to 100 letters.

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Q: Do you think the good of the Internet outweighs the bad?

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A: At this point it’s a draw. What I’m hearing are the negatives. But that’s the way it is because that’s the kind of column I write. People write to me when there’s a problem or when things go wrong. They don’t write when things are lovely. They write when things go wrong, and apparently things are going wrong for a lot of people.

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Q: Haven’t all these letters made you curious about what goes on in cyberspace? Haven’t you been tempted to go online?

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A: I know what’s out there because readers are telling me. I don’t have to have a computer to know what’s out there, and I’m warning my readers that some of the things going on out there are dangerous. I trust them; when you get letters from 50, 60, 70 people and they’re all saying the same thing, well, I have a tendency to believe that this is the way it is.

What got me was the fact was they all sound the same. “My husband now tells me after so many years of marriage that he’s met this person on the Internet and this person is a soul mate and he’s leaving.” First I thought this is some aberration; this is some nutty thing. But after I begin to get 10, 12, 15, 20, 25 letters saying that--not only husbands leaving wives, but wives leaving husbands--I begin to perk up and say something’s going on here that’s very new to me.

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Q: Don’t you think some of these marriages may have been fragile to begin with?

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A: Absolutely; a solid marriage doesn’t crack up over something like this.

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Q: So is it the fault of the technology? These sorts of encounters could have happened at the corner bar.

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A: Well, technology’s a lot more fun than the local bar because you don’t have to see somebody and they don’t have to see you. That is the beauty of this for these kinds of people. Women or men who aren’t particularly attractive--here they are. They are getting romantic overtures from somebody, and it appeals to them.

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Q: Have you talked to Sen. Leahy since running his letter?

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A: He called me. He’s a wonderful fellow and a good friend. He says I made him famous. He said the whole thing was on the front page of the Burlington newspaper. He said he’s having a lot of fun with it. He said he’s been in the Senate I don’t know how many years, and now all of a sudden he’s a big man.

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Q: Did he try to persuade you that the Internet is an instrument for good?

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A: Information and being able to disseminate positive information--certainly it can be a tool for good. But people aren’t writing me about that aspect. They’re writing me about what’s happened to them as a result of the Internet.

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Q: The cyberspace crowd tends to be quite vocal, especially when they think the Internet is being attacked in any way. Have you been getting much mail from them?

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A: No, not really. I’ve had a few people say I should quit knocking it--that it’s a great tool, it’s a great way to disseminate information. I’ve had a few letters like that, but I’ve had many more of the other kind.


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