Columbine and the End of Journalism…TIME Mag and LA Times miss the mark

April 21, 2010 at 11:34 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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The lesson on this Columbine anniversary that hit April 20 may not come from the shootings themselves. But rather, how the media has covered the shootings since the ten-year anniversary last year.

I previously discussed shortcomings in Newsweek’s coverage of Columbine’s ten-year anniversary. But they were not the only ones who wrote as if they were unaware of the twists and turns the Columbine story had taken.
Writing in TIME magazine, Lev Grossman’s ten-year anniversary story was titled “The Meaning Of Murder.” The first line in TIME’s big piece tried to reach for news and said of the killers, “They weren’t gay.”
Grossman doesn’t say why that is new, and it’s not clear the (false) notion that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were gay ever gained acceptance in the mainstream media. On May 2, 1999, just less than two weeks after the shootings, the Rocky quoted someone who knew the killers with the same words Grossman used: “They were not gay. They did not wear makeup,” Dustin Gorton told the paper. “There’s so much information coming out about them that just isn’t true.” Stories on the “basement tapes” made by the killers often note their anti-gay rhetoric, including a TIME magazine story published in 1999.
The next line in TIME magazine’s big ten-year piece announces that the killers “weren’t part of the Trench Coat Mafia.” (Probably true, although long a topic of debate.)
For Grossman “maybe the most surprising thing…is how quickly it all happened.” He is in awe that Harris and Klebold ended their lives 49 minutes after the shooting began and “All the murders happened in the first 16 [minutes].” Well, that’s the same information released in May 2000 in the sheriff’s official version of events.
Yet TIME seems to take a swipe at the media saying that “the stories that have already been told” have to be untold. Now TIME’s story can be untold.
Although Grossman is insightful in opining that we should focus on Klebold, not the more fiery Harris: “If there is a lesson here, it lies in Klebold’s story, which is the more disturbing because he was, at heart, like us. He was capable of love and sympathy, and he discarded them. Some killers are natural born. Klebold was made.”

* * *
Los Angeles Times book editor David Ulin began a review of a Columbine book by saying, “Forget everything you thought you knew.” Ulin goes on to herald the revelation that student Cassie Bernall was not shot dead in the library after saying “yes” she believed in God. (Another girl, Valeen Schnurr, did say she believed in God, and after being shot. She survived.) The false Bernall story did go worldwide in the months after Columbine and Bernall’s mother wrote the book, She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall.
But five months after the shootings, on Sept. 23, 1999 (yes, 1999), the Denver Post, citing Salon.com, noted “‘key investigators’ doubt the widely reported story that 17-year-old Cassie Bernall was slain because she told the killers, as a gun was held to her head, that she indeed believed in God.” The next day the Rocky ran a story with the headline, “ACCOUNTS DIFFER ON QUESTION TO BERNALL COLUMBINE SHOOTING VICTIM MAY NOT HAVE BEEN ASKED WHETHER SHE BELIEVED IN GOD.” The next month the Washington Post reported, “Cassie probably never said yes, or anything else.”
Misinformation early on wasn’t necessarily due to sloppy reporting. Ten of the thirteen victims were killed in the library. Investigators needed time to sift through information and correct errors. Despite the many valid criticisms of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, it seems to have done an able job in debunking the Bernall myth long before the ten-year.
To be sure, many in the public still seem to have genuinely believed such myths of Columbine. As did journalists. But journalists should proceed on what is known, not their perception.
Yet Ulin chides “the misreporting of the media, which at its worst resembled nothing so much as an enormous game of telephone.” He adds that the media “parachuted into Columbine, asked a few questions and then parachuted out.” But a simple spot check on the Bernall issue shows the Washington Post, Denver Post and Rocky quickly got it right. The Denver Post and Rocky, meantime, never parachuted in. Then again, they never left. They also filed lawsuits, as did victims families, that freed up valuable information. A Denver Post lawsuit that took four years resulted in the release of nearly 1,000 pages of key writings by the killers and Harris’ father.
Ulin (and most other reviewers) never mentions that. Nor do they mention the Denver Post won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news, in the words of the judges, “for its clear and balanced coverage of the student massacre at Columbine High School.” (Nor, if that Pulitzer wasn’t warranted, do reviewers criticize the Pulitzer judges. Do the reviewers even know about the Columbine Pulitzer?) The Rocky also won a Pulitzer that year for breaking news photography of Columbine.

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Columbine Memorial

April 20, 2010 at 10:45 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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I have been blogging this past week about Columbine media coverage, but today is the 11th anniversary of the shootings. This posting is dedicated to the 13 innocent victims who died on April 20, 1999.

Rachel Scott
Dan Rohrbough
Dave Sanders
Kyle Velasquez
Steven Curnow
Cassie Bernall
Isaiah Shoels
Matt Kechter
Lauren Townsend
John Tomlin
Kelly Fleming
Daniel Mauser
Corey DePooter

Columbine Memorial Web site.

Columbine and the End of Journalism – Denver Post Op-Ed

April 18, 2010 at 7:14 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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A summary article of my blogs on Columbine media coverage this past year appears in a Denver Post online Guest Commentary today. This is how it begins:

Colorado’s biggest news story gave us a lesson in journalism last year. The 10-year anniversary of Columbine came as school shootings and other mass shootings sadly thrive as high-profile social issues. So with good reason, a phalanx of international media descended on Colorado for April 20, 2009. It seems safe to say that media coverage of Columbine’s 10-year anniversary was rivaled only by coverage of the shootings themselves.

One instance of what I might calls journalism without context came in TIME magazine which, like most media, seemed unaware of the reporting that had been done on Columbine over the past ten years. From my Op-Ed:

In TIME magazine last year Lev Grossman wrote that “maybe the most surprising thing…is how quickly it all happened.” He was in awe that shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold ended their lives some 49 minutes after the shooting began and “All the murders happened in the first 16 (MINUTES).” Well, that’s the same information released in May 2000 in then Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone’s official version of events.

There were also high points, which included the Denver Post:

In a survey of Columbine books (mine included) The Denver Post reviewer Keith Coffman noted, “The Columbine massacre of a decade ago was one of the most widely – if inaccurately – reported crime stories in American history.” Although the record also shows that many errors were corrected, which the Post captures: “Myths surrounding the school shooting that were seared into the public consciousness from the early news coverage were later debunked, but muted by the passage of time.” That key subtlety is the one that almost every reviewer and reporter across the nation missed, and so came to believe that what was old was news.

Columbine and the End of Journalism…A Daily Blog Series, Part III

April 16, 2010 at 7:26 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The lesson on this Columbine anniversary that hits April 20 may not come from the shootings themselves. But rather, how the media has covered the shootings since the ten-year anniversary last year.

While journalists are often treated as jacks-of-all-trades – able to cover a transportation board meeting or school shooting on a moment’s notice – that is not always true for book reviewers. World War II experts might be expected to review tomes on World War II; war correspondents review books on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; accomplished writers review books by other accomplished writers. But most mainstream publications appear to have made a fatal error in assigning people who knew next to nothing about Columbine to dissect a multifaceted psychological and sociological problem bound up by tens of thousands of documents and ten years of reporting.
Newsweek couched a big ten-year anniversary story as an essay titled “The Columbine Generation” and handed it to someone who was 16 years old and in high school at the time of the shootings. That’s OK for an essay truly on “The Columbine Generation,” but not a review of the Columbine shootings. The equivalent would be assigning someone to review a major book on World War II simply because they were in high school at the time.
“As obvious as it sounds now, the guys wanted to kill as many people as they could–many more than the 13 who died,” Newsweek writer Ramin Setoodeh wrote as he tried to deliver some news ten years later. “They planted bombs and duffel bags placed strategically in the cafeteria.” Indeed, that information was widely released within days of the shootings. The April 23, 1999 Rocky Mountain News – three days after Columbine – was typical in reporting that propane bombs had been found in the school and quoted then Colorado Gov. Bill Owens as saying, “The killers planned to destroy this entire school, and they failed.”
“[Eric] Harris and [Dylan] Klebold were only vaguely associated with the ‘Trench Coat Mafia,’ a clique of outsiders,” Setoodeh wrote. His words are surprisingly close to a story in the Rocky: “Eric and Dylan gravitated toward a small circle of students united by their differences. Combat boots and thrift-store grunge adrift in an Abercrombie & Fitch sea. This angry, rebellious group would become known as the Trench Coat Mafia.
“Even then, Dylan and Eric were on the fringes of the outcast clique.”
Except the Rocky printed those words on August 22, 1999, four months after Columbine – when Setoodeh was still in his high school years. In Newsweek Setoodeh wasn’t reporting anything new. He was repeating information that was 10 years old.
“The Columbine killers were a strange and deeply disturbed pair, right out of a Truman Capote book” Setoodeh opined. He probably meant one nonfiction book in particular – In Cold Blood.
But New York Times book critic Janet Maslin adroitly noted that Capote also wrote a novel hinged on romance.
“Which [book]?” she asked of Setoodeh’s article. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s?”
Sidebar: In the midst of writing this blog series I recalled a letter written by Hunter S. Thompson, who I knew for five years and who blurbed the back of my book. Thompson’s first book of collected letters, The Proud Highway, includes a 1963 letter he wrote from Rio de Janeiro to Newsweek publisher Phil Graham. The letter gives pause to anyone who thinks Newsweek just recently turned the corner from stalwart journalism to cub reporting.
“Newsweek, a fat-wallet book that criticizes other people for rehashing the news, is represented here [in Rio] by a virtually unpaid British stringer whose stories are published with all the tack-sharp regularity of total eclipses of the sun,” Thompson wrote.
Thompson continued: “Newsweek’s last story on Brazil, in fact, was held up by the Rio press corps as a hideous example of what happens when Latin America is covered from Madison Avenue. It was so full of stupid mistakes that, frankly, it was hard to believe that it was meant to be fact, instead of fiction.”

Columbine and the End of Journalism…A Daily Blog Series, Part II

April 15, 2010 at 12:13 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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The lesson on this Columbine anniversary that hits April 20 may not come from the shootings themselves. But rather, how the media has covered the shootings since the ten-year anniversary last year.

Some Columbine myths, such as Cassie Bernall saying she believed in God before being shot, were quickly disproved. Other “myths” were never myths at all, such as shooter Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s disdain for virtually all other humans. Some supposed myths are complicated. Harris and Klebold may not have been members of the Trench Coat Mafia. But they wore trench coats; had friends in the clique; and maybe most importantly, identified with the group’s rebelliousness.

Yet the ability to grasp subtleties and provide historical context was not evident for many reporters and book reviewers going over Columbine. As they attempted to rewrite the Columbine story on the ten-year, the subtext was, ‘We blindly put our faith in the early news reports. Now we are told they were wrong. We are now blindly putting our faith in the latest story we are hearing.’

So the first reporters at Columbine were lumped into one category and chastised on the ten-year anniversary for not getting it totally accurate in the first hours, or days. Contemporary armchair journalists – themselves often misinformed – now harangued the rest of their on-the-ground brethren. This was all more perverse because the media seemed to take such glee in the spanking.

Columbine’s ten-year anniversary arrived as the business of journalism is crumbling amidst cries about its central role to democracy and a free society. Yet in covering Columbine on the ten-year many major publications fell flat on their face. It’s hard to rally round journalism after such instances. Do we really need TIME and Newsweek if they can’t get Columbine right? Reporters may have also been blinded by a desire to find some “news” – a new storyline – to add spark to anniversary coverage rather than take a look back. But one story the media might investigate is how, despite our ever-growing databases of knowledge, the public and plenty of journalists still manage to be misinformed.

A key way for reporters to become instant experts on a story is to “check the clips,” or what has already been written. Even if the clips have errors, reporters at least have a foundation on what questions to ask and may, wittingly or not, uncover past errors. Maybe it should be no surprise that some of the best Columbine coverage came from reporters who checked more than one source (or any source). That’s the good news: Good coverage doesn’t require anything fancy or expensive, but rather the tried and true method of being a reporter, checking the clips, and checking the facts. So simple, yet seemingly so tough.

Bloggers, called the grass roots saviors who would correct the biases and shortcomings of the “mainstream media,” mostly failed as dramatically as the professional press corps. Do we even expect bloggers to use more than one source and check the clips? If we don’t, we should. They seem to think whatever is floating around in their head must be true. They’re wrong.

Columbine and the End of Journalism…A Daily Blog Series, Part I.

April 14, 2010 at 2:49 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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The lesson on this Columbine anniversary that hits April 20 may not come from the shootings themselves. But rather, how the media has covered the shootings since the ten-year anniversary last year.

Some Columbine victims families passed the ten-year by returning to the school and walking through the nearby memorial in Clement Park. The memorial was not cleared for the parents, and they quietly mingled with the reporters and general public who had arrived on April 20, 2009 to honor the anniversary. Most people and reporters buzzing the area that day did not recognize the victims families. Just as they did not recognize the story of Columbine.
Columbine has always been a very difficult story to untangle, even for those dedicated to covering it. Authorities – namely the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office – routinely withheld information but were then often forced to parcel it out, generally after lawsuits. The Columbine story dribbled out piece by piece, year by year. Each round of new information often changed the story as we knew it. Only a select number of reporters developed an expertise. The events of Columbine also defy easy explanation – it was not simply the parents, or gun control, or bullying.
Yet school shootings and other mass shootings are one of America’s most high-profile social issues. Like plane crashes, they are rare but highly dramatic events. Mass shootings hit schools, malls and health clubs – where people think they are safest. And Columbine remains the world’s most iconic school shooting. So with good reason, a phalanx of international media revisited the ten-year anniversary. It seems safe to say that media coverage of the ten-year anniversary was rivaled only by coverage of the shootings themselves.
A decade later, the media had a truckload of facts at its disposal to burrow into why Columbine seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 others before taking their own lives. Over 26,000 pages of police documents had been released, lawsuit files were the size of telephone books, and reams of news stories filled the archives. The Columbine file seems to be nearing completion (although one can never know, as information unknown to exist has a knack for surprise appearances). The ten-year also saw the publication of three books that reporters often used a pivots for their coverage, including mine, Columbine: A True Crime Story (Ghost Road Press).
And yet, media coverage of the ten-year was often uninformed and served to create new myths surrounding Columbine. The misguided coverage seems to fall into two main categories. Many reporters bought into a new myth that the Columbine killers were simply ordinary, popular teens, without stopping to critically examine that statement. Do ordinary teens really commit school shootings? If so, why don’t we have thousands of school shootings a day? If school shooters are ordinary, does that make the vast majority of teens who do not commit school shootings out of the mainstream? Of course not. School shooters are a disaffected, but thankfully rare breed.
Another false buy-in on the ten-year anniversary was that the Columbine “myths” were just now being debunked. In fact, plenty of media in the days and months after Columbine did get many aspects wrong. But they later corrected it. And the errors were not necessarily due to sloppiness, laziness or pursuit of a neat story angle. In part, it was inaccurate information accurately reported. Columbine students, for example, repeated error-filled stories to reporters either because they didn’t know or made honest mistakes (i.e. they truly thought Cassie Bernall was the one who said “yes,” she believed in God). Reporters wrote it down.
Columbine remains Colorado’s largest criminal probe with thousands of interviews, potential witnesses, and a crime scene the size of a high school. A small army of investigators did not have a full picture for months. Yet some of the media still got the early details right – or at least they provided multiple viewpoints. Many inaccuracies were corrected long before the ten-year anniversary. But you wouldn’t know that from reading the recent news coverage.
Click here to find out more!

Columbine and Terrorism

February 3, 2010 at 10:43 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Columbine shooter Eric Harris wrote in his diary that he would like to hijack a plane and crash it into New York City. It showed one link between the Columbine killers and terrorists: They served to use limited resources to maximum effect. The Columbine killers, of course, ended up taking a different route than a plane hijacking. But I read with interest a recent story in the New York Times about the psychological research that is emerging on terrorists now that researchers are amassing a larger body of knowledge on them.

It is instructive to see how some of the common denominators among terrorists listed in the NYT match school shooters.

NYT: “a strong sense of victimization and alienation; the belief that moral violations by the enemy justify violence in pursuit of a ‘higher moral condition;’ the belief that the terrorists’ ethnic, religious or nationalist group is special and in danger of extinction, and that they lack the political power to effect change without violence.”

I believe Harris and Klebold may have believed in that latter phrase: They felt they couldn’t change the system, so set out to destroy it.

NYT: “The collective, not the individual, identity has drawn the most attention in recent years. Only in rare cases, like those of the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, and the Washington sniper, John Allen Muhammad, have individuals acted on their own, with no connection to a group. …Most researchers agree that justification for extremist action, whether through religious or secular doctrine, is either developed or greatly intensified by group dynamics.”

There were actually two Washington snipers – or at least an accomplice to Muhammad. But it seems in Columbine Harris and Klebold were a group of two who enabled each other to continue on.

NYT: “Fathali M Moghaddam, a professor of psychology at Georgetown University, describes a ‘staircase to terrorism,’ as a way to understand the process of radicalization. The stairs narrow toward the top. It becomes harder to turn back with each step.”

The same could be argued about the Columbine shooters. As psychologist Aubrey Immelman, who I quote in my book says, they themselves may not have believed it was going to happen at first. But as D-Day got closer, it became more of a reality. And I might add, more impossible to turn back.

And from that sampling, you get an idea of the article.

Columbine and Malik Nadal Hasan Fort Hood shooting

November 5, 2009 at 8:56 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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As I reflected on Columbine and Malik Nadal Hasan, the suspect in the Fort Hood shooting, one word stuck in my mind.

Texas.

Texas, to me, says the South and therefore the culture of honor.(Encyclopedia Britannica online lists Texas as the South although I understand some might say Texas is just Texas). Colorado, where Columbine occurred, is the West. But the West, as I point out in my book Columbine: A True Crime Story, also retains a culture of honor.

Simply put, that concept allows people to believe that if they have been slighted – if their honor has been violated – that it is OK to retaliate with violence. It is similar to the idea of taking the law into your own hands – being a sheriff in your own hearth, as one saying goes – and extracting your own revenge. I should add that news reports say Hasan grew up in Virgina and graduated from Virginia Tech, firmly in the South and the site of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history with 33 dead, including the gunman.

The news reports are early and ever-changing (with the recent surprise that Hasan is alive). But a couple items may point to Hasan’s wanting to take revenge. He was allegedly harassed by fellow soldiers for being of Muslim descent, and had considered trying to leave the U.S. Army early but an attorney he retained said he could not. He may have also been “mortified” about having to be deployed to the Middle East after hearing horror stories.

Aside from the culture of honor as an issue in the shootings, it will be interesting to see how this plays out in gun control pro and con circles. One argument has been that more armed teachers, for example, will stop such shooters in schools. Now, I don’t know if the soldiers were armed in the area where the shooting occurred, but on the other hand it’s hard to imagine a place with more armed people than a military base. People taking up that line of debate will probably need more details.

An Op-Ed on Oprah and a Columbine killer’s mother

October 18, 2009 at 3:29 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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I have an Op-Ed in today’s Denver Post on the essay written by the mother of Columbine killer Dylan Klebold for Oprah. It begins, “One of the most compelling questions after Columbine was, ‘Who are the parents?’ Ten years later, it remains unanswered.”

The Op-Ed is a fuller version of my thoughts on the essay by Susan Klebold for O The Oprah Magazine. While observers had to make a little leap of analysis when a few select excerpts were first released, it appears those excerpts did give a pretty good picture: There was hardly anything new in the essay. “Years later, the Klebolds seem stuck on the same script,” I write in the Op-Ed titled “Klebold may not know what she knows.”

Aside from the content of the Klebold essay, released this past week, what strikes me is how many bloggers are getting it wrong. Many of the posts I have seen buy into O magazine’s (erroneous) salesmanship that the contents of the essay – or even Klebold speaking – are new.

Otherwise, there is one key recommendation I have in the Op-Ed, although the final say will come from elsewhere.

Susan Klebold on Oprah, Columbine and suicide

October 12, 2009 at 10:37 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Susan Klebold, the mother of Columbine killer Dylan Klebold, teases a key issue when she discusses suicide for The Oprah Magazine.

Klebold mentions (in the magazine ‘O’) the parallels between suicide and school shooters and indeed, many school shooters express suicidal thoughts before the shootings and/or upon being captured. The Columbine killers were different only in that they were unusually successful in carrying out their suicidal wishes.

What is the connection between suicide and homicide? I think it is one of the toughest questions in discussing school shootings. But Klebold touches on an important point – essentially an educated guess on her part – that her son Dylan did not discuss his suicidal thoughts with others because “He was accustomed to handling his own problems, and he perceived his inability to do so as a weakness.”

Handling your own problem is indeed a trademark of school shooters, I argue in my book. It’s the same as the expression “Be a sheriff in your own hearth,” a trademark of the South and West of the United States (where most school shootings occur). In those parts of the country, people have a sense of self-reliance and ‘Culture of Honor’ where they feel they have to defend themselves, especially if their honor has been violated.

That moves into the realm of homicide because school shooters feel their honor has been violated by their lowly status at school (real or perceived), and it is acceptable – even honorable – to retaliate with violence.

One other news flash is that Klebold indicates she (and I guess her husband) met privately with the parents of some of those killed at the school. I’m also guessing that she is not talking about being faced down by victims families during legal depositions. I had been told about such meetings, but never felt I had it fully confirmed.

After reading Klebold’s full essay (I’m guessing 3,000 words long) I stand by my original blog that there is little else that is substantive and new – despite what many in the media and Oprah claim.

Klebold’s essay is titled “I Will Never Know Why.” And that may be true, whatever criticisms may be leveled at the essay (and Klebold herself). But I would also argue that certain experts may be able to piece together the ‘why.’ What’s stopping them is a more forthcoming Susan Klebold.

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