The Columbine Mirror

May 12, 2010 at 11:19 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Imagine holding the Columbine shootings — and some of its controversies — up to a mirror. Can gun control prevent school shootings? Can shutting out news of school attacks help prevent them?

Showing us that mirror is what the New York Times did today with its story on school attacks in China.

The Times reports, “At least 17 people have been killed — mostly children — and dozens injured in the series of attacks, which began in March. In each case, a middle-aged man acting alone set upon children with knives or tools.”

Which brings up the issue of gun control and the perennial question (at least in the United States) of whether stricter controls could prevent school shootings. Now, I do not mean to take sides on the issue, but here would seem to be an interesting case study. “Shooting rampages are rare in China,” the Times says. “It is difficult to buy guns of any kind here. Sharp objects and tools are the weapons of choice for homicides.”

And so it would seem that if someone is interested in rampage, they will get the weapon at hand. I would also point out that while it would seem guns would generally cause more deaths, the number killed in the latest attack seems staggering: “A man with a kitchen cleaver rampaged through a kindergarten in rural northern China on Wednesday, and state media said he hacked to death seven children and two adults before returning home and killing himself,” according to The Times.

The suicide issue is also important. As I point out in my book Columbine: A True Crime Story suicide is an undercurrent in school shootings. The Columbine killers were unusually successful in that they killed themselves, yet other shooters who have been captured express a desire to have died in the course their rampage.

The Times reports that the Chinese attacks have been covered in the media, although after the first stories, “the government has been carefully censoring subsequent stories, perhaps to prevent other copycat murders, or perhaps to play down any suggestion of dysfunction within Chinese society.”

One Chinese newspaper fought back and editorialized, “It is undeniable that the media’s coverage on these incidents of bloodshed may ‘inspire’ potential killers, but it will educate more people by raising awareness of self-protection and spur the authorities, and this is the role that media should play in the society.”

Given the debate over bullying at Columbine, there is another interesting reference in The Times China piece. It comes from the same newspaper editorial that questioned the censorship:

“On Wednesday, Dahe Bao, a newspaper in Henan Province, quickly posted on the Internet a fiery editorial that pointed to misbehavior by government officials as the root cause of the problem.

“‘After being treated unfairly or being bullied by the authorities, and unable to take revenge on those government departments that are safeguarded by state security forces, killers have to let out their hatred and anger on weaker people, and campuses have become the first choice,’ said the editorial, signed by a writer named Shi Chuan.”

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The Weird Story of Columbine Media Coverage

May 6, 2010 at 10:59 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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That’s the working title of my speech tonight at the Denver Press Club, 6 pm

The talk, as I now have it written, begins:

The Columbine High School shootings began at 11:20 in the morning on April 20, 1999. It was a Tuesday.
I soon got a call from my editor at the Boston Globe. He had heard the news on CNN, but the report was early and vague: Maybe a student had been shot in the leg, the editor said. He wasn’t even sure he wanted me to go to the scene, but told me to standby. I checked the local television coverage. It was wall to wall, as they say. I called the editor back and said a major school shooting had come to Denver. I headed out to Columbine, which neither I nor most of the world, had ever heard of.

I will also be discussing Cassie Bernall:

I was appalled at how many stories on the ten-year anniversary were wrong and misleading. Now, the media is not one giant entity. It is a lot of different reporters and news organizations. But the truth remains. Most reporters got it wrong. A few got it right.
The story of Cassie Bernall is still instructive. Cassie was a seventeen-year-old junior at Columbine with blond hair who traded her fascination with witchcraft for religion. She was killed in the library at Columbine. One of the biggest myths to emerge from the shootings was whether Cassie was shot after saying she believed in God. She was not.

This is the full press release for the talk:

Helen Verba Lecture Series to Feature Jeff Kass May 6

Columbine: A True Crime Story gives an in-depth look at the shooting and its aftermath

Nearly 11 years after Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 classmates and a teacher, Columbine remains the world’s most iconic school shooting. Columbine: A True Crime Story, a victim, the killers and the nation’s search for answers is the first book of investigative journalism to tell the complete story of that day, the far-reaching consequences, and the common denominators among school shooters across the country.
Author Jeff Kass will discuss his book, at 6 p.m. May 6 as part of the Helen Verba Lecture Series, at the Denver Press Club, 1330 Glenarm Place.
Kass was one of the first reporters on scene and wrote the Page One, next day story for the Boston Globe. For 10 years he covered Columbine as a staff writer for the Rocky Mountain News. He has broken national stories on the shootings such as leaked crime scene photos, and the sealed diversion files of the killers. He has also reported the story extensively for the Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, Newsday, and U.S. News & World Report.
This event is free and open to the public, presented by the Colorado Society of Professional Journalists, The Denver Post and the Denver Press Club.

Columbine and the End of Journalism…A Talk

April 29, 2010 at 11:45 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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(Note: I will focus on media coverage of Columbine; this is the official description):

Helen Verba Lecture Series to Feature Jeff Kass May 6

Columbine: A True Crime Story gives an in-depth look at the shooting and its aftermath

Nearly 11 years after Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 classmates and a teacher, Columbine remains the world’s most iconic school shooting. Columbine: A True Crime Story, a victim, the killers and the nation’s search for answers is the first book of investigative journalism to tell the complete story of that day, the far-reaching consequences, and the common denominators among school shooters across the country.
Author Jeff Kass will discuss his book, at 6 p.m. May 6 as part of the Helen Verba Lecture Series, at the Denver Press Club, 1330 Glenarm Place.
Kass was one of the first reporters on scene and wrote the Page One, next day story for the Boston Globe. For 10 years he covered Columbine as a staff writer for the Rocky Mountain News. He has broken national stories on the shootings such as leaked crime scene photos, and the sealed diversion files of the killers. He has also reported the story extensively for the Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, Newsday, and U.S. News & World Report.
This event is free and open to the public, presented by the Colorado Society of Professional Journalists, The Denver Post and the Denver Press Club.

Columbine and the End of Journalism…Part VII, The Good Stuff

April 28, 2010 at 11:11 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Some reporters got it right on the ten-year anniversary of the Columbine shootings.
The Associated Press was among the first to signal the coming of the anniversary with a review of three new books on the shootings. Writer M.L. Johnson produced an informed and, following the AP tradition, straightforward review. By pointing up key differences and similarities, she avoids pure propagation of new myths. “[Dave] Cullen discounts the idea that Harris and Klebold were outcasts or bullied,” Johnson writes on the one hand. But she also added the flipside, well supported by the killers’ writings and of course their actions: “[Jeff] Kass describes the boys’ circle as ‘probably the lowest rung of the social ladder.’”
Johnson also juxtaposes theories as she discusses the “why.” Kass: “Columbine and other school shootings are an outgrowth of the South and West of the United States, and suburbs and small towns. In suburbs and small towns, if you’re an outcast in high school, you feel like a loser through-and-through because there are no alternative outlets to find your self-esteem. … And in the South and the West, there is a mentality that if you feel your honor has been injured, you take it upon yourself to retaliate.”
Johnson contrasts that with the idea that, “Cullen believes Harris would have killed regardless of where he lived.”
There is arguably a right and wrong amongst the various interpretations. But at least readers are given a choice.
* * *
Aside from Johnson two of the most insightful reviewers were Denver writers who, through their knowledge and research, were able to put Columbine in proper context. If all politics is local, maybe journalism is too.
The Denver Post review was especially important given that the rival Rocky Mountain News (where I worked for ten years) had ceased publishing less than two months earlier and the Post was now the only major daily in Colorado. Keith Coffman, who reviewed the Columbine books for the Post, was described as “a Colorado-based freelance journalist. He has written about Columbine for Reuters, The Denver Post and the governor’s Columbine Review Commission.”
“The Columbine massacre of a decade ago,” Coffman began, “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.
The Post also does good by doing no harm – i.e. not propagating new myths, and ends with a nuanced conclusion as to Columbine’s most vexing question: Why? The Post refuses to simply buy into the idea that the shooters were just normal, popular teens and allows for multiple viewpoints. Mental illness, the American West and the isolation of suburbia (Kass) versus Harris the psychopath (Cullen).
Next up: Denver Post opinion columnist Vincent Carroll weighs in, admirably, on Columbine myths, old and new.

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.

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.
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Susan Klebold, mother of Columbine shooter, writes out for Oprah

October 10, 2009 at 1:07 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Susan Klebold, the mother of Columbine killer Dylan Klebold, is making news for a forthcoming column she has written for O, The Oprah Magazine.

Yet there appears to be more rewriting history than news.

The column – touted in a press release sent out by O – comes across as news because indeed the parents of both killers have said little. And it is a noteworthy development. But the news is also pumped up because even after 10 years and a spate of books on Columbine, the media can’t seem to get it right.

An AP story calls the column “the most detailed response yet from any of the parents of Columbine killers Dylan Klebold or Eric Harris.” But let’s recap. The Klebolds and Harrises did speak with police after Columbine, and summaries of those interviews have been released. The Klebolds were also interviewed for an (admittedly short) New York Times column. I’m not saying the killers’ parents have been forthcoming, but it doesn’t appear, based on the excerpts so far, that Susan Klebold is saying anything new.

It will also be interesting to see if Susan Klebold addresses some of the most intriguing things she has ever said previously, according to her interview summaries and other documents: That Dylan was fascinated with guns and explosives. Or that he was sullen, angry, disrespectful, intolerant, and isolated. The Klebolds have never fully explained those statements (made before, and the day of, Columbine). Or at least those discussions have never been made public.

Finally, Susan Klebold indicates she has been searching for answers, especially suicide. She is partially on the right track, as my book notes the suicidal links among school shooters across the country. But the Klebolds have a funny way of searching for answers. Their attorneys have at different times issued me a subpoena and said my sources’ hands should be cut off when I uncovered information.

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