Columbine and the End of Journalism…New York Times on Columbine

April 22, 2010 at 11:58 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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The New York Times, the paper of record, had a mixed bag when it came to handling the ten-year anniversary of the Columbine shootings.
Book critic Janet Maslin got it right noting that “some of the worst misconceptions” had already been refuted by fall of 1999. “And even with the new facts that have trickled out slowly over the past decade, despite efforts by the killers’ parents and the embarrassed Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office to keep them under wraps, the overall picture has not greatly changed (although law enforcement tactics have become more aggressive in response to the first graphic hostage crisis of the cellphone age),”she added. “Emerging details mostly corroborate what was already known.”
Maslin separates herself from the pack because she provides context and accuracy. Indeed, the ten-year did not offer new revelations into the tick tock of Columbine events or investigations. The ten-year story was (or should have been) the meaning of a decade of revelations, or the “why” behind Columbine.
But the Times was back to its old ignorance in the Sunday Book Review in a piece titled “The End of the Trench Coat Mafia.” Reviewer Jennifer Senior’s credentials are listed as “contributing editor at New York magazine” (New York clearly not being the hotbed of Columbine information). In her review Senior indicates she had debunked a 9/11 myth about a firefighter chaplain dying while giving one of his own last rites. She does not mention any expertise in Columbine. And Senior acknowledges using nothing more than her own recollections as a baseline: “I expected a story about misfits exacting vengeance, because that was my memory of the media consensus….” A lot of people agree with her, but going on memory is not journalism. Senior expresses the now usual surprise that “a propane bomb” (actually it was two) could have killed hundreds. Senior heralds it as news that Bernall did not say ‘yes.’ Yet she laces her review with the usual hammering away at the media. “Of course, tragedies often lend themselves to myths, so as to meet the needs of the day.” Only true if one hadn’t read anything about Columbine in ten years.
Frank Rich is one of the Times’ premier columnists, and had an overarching Columbine reference near the ten-year in his April 26, 2009 piece “The Banality of Bush White House Evil.” The article is about allegations of torture under President George W. Bush’s administration in the war on terror, yet Rich’s first paragraph is oddly dedicated to the Columbine shootings. Rich notes, “Dave Cullen reaffirms Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were instead ordinary American teenagers who worked at the local pizza joint, loved their parents and were popular among their classmates.”
That is just about the same statement Jonathan Karp, Cullen’s publisher, wrote in a publicity sheet first released five months earlier: “What is shocking about Columbine [the book] is just how ordinary these two boys seemed. They loved their parents, did their homework, worked at the local pizzeria, and – contrary to widely reported accounts – were well-liked by their peers.”
Rich says he was not doing a cut and paste job. “I was (as I wrote) summarizing Cullen’s consistent portrayal of them in ‘Columbine,'” he writes in an e-mail. “It’s also how Cullen spoke of them to me in conversations about Columbine, and no doubt to others, including certainly those at his publishing house charged with promoting his book.”
But if anyone else believes the dubious assertion that Harris and Klebold were well-liked by their peers plenty of examples, aside from the shootings themselves, show that the bonhomie was not reciprocated. “Everyone is always making fun of me because of how I look, how [expletive] weak I am and sh**, well I will get you all back: ultimate [expletive] revenge here,” Harris wrote a few months before Columbine in a typical diary entry. “You people could have shown more respect, treated me better, asked for knowledge or guidence [sic] more, treated me more like senior and maybe I wouldn’t have been as ready to tear your [expletive] heads off.” Fellow shooter Dylan Klebold was typically less fiery, but still set himself apart. “as i see the people at school – some good, some bad – i see how different i am,” he wrote.
Rich fails to mention Columbine again in his lengthy column. He also fails to mention that he has the lead blurb on the back of Cullen’s book (“Dave Cullen…has been on top of the Columbine story from the start”). Rich actually wrote those words in a September 25, 1999 column, which were then cut and pasted for publicity. Rich notes, “Under Times policy, any publisher can pull a quote from a Times article (review, column, etc) and use it as a blurb to promote a book, movie, play — whether on a book jacket or in an ad — as long as the quote is accurate.” He adds, “The blurb was public information.” True, although it was probably not public information to those reading his column.

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