Columbine and the End of Journalism, Part IX…Oprah

June 27, 2010 at 2:54 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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For proof of the widespread interest in Columbine’s ten-year anniversary last April 20, look to the biggest name in book publishing: Oprah.
She had planned a show the day of the anniversary titled “10 Years Later: The Truth About Columbine.” As I have discussed in this series of blogs, many Columbine “myths” were actually debunked years ago (aside from the new ones that cropped up on the ten-year). A trailer for Oprah show touts diaries of shooter Eric Harris (released years earlier) and how a parent complained a year before the shootings (probably the story of Randy Brown, known within days of the shootings). The only topic mentioned in the trailer that might have benefited from some fresh discussion was whether the shooters were bullied. An Oprah spokeswoman did not elaborate on what new information would come out on the show.
This segment wasn’t a big deal just because Oprah can sell books like nobody’s business. The ten-year was special. As I have written, coverage of that anniversary seems eclipsed only by coverage of the shootings themselves. Oprah’s segment had to be just right.
But Oprah canceled the show as it was set to air. “After reviewing it, I thought it focused too much on the killers,” she said. “Today, hold a thought for the Columbine community. This is a hard day for them.”
In Denver’s alternative weekly, Westword, Michael Roberts chronicled the cancellation as it occurred, “The Winfrey comment suggests that there’s more to the story — and there is.”
But the question, arguably, remains whether the show was canceled due to community outcry, a misguided segment, or both.
Opposition to the segment from two of the most well-known Columbine community members, Brian Rohrbough and Randy Brown, centered on the show’s guests. Rohrbough heard about the show when an Oprah producer called him asking for photos of his son, Dan, who was killed at Columbine. The photos were to be used for the anniversary segment. Rohrbough, who had been on the show before, learned that Columbine author Dave Cullen, lead Columbine investigator Kate Battan, and FBI Columbine investigator (and psychologist) Dwayne Fuselier were among the guests. (Disclosure: An Oprah producer called me and we talked about my Columbine book, but I guess I didn’t make the final cut.)
Rohrbough, who has been among the fiercest critics of the troubled Columbine investigation, said he would like to go on the show to rebut those guests. Investigative omissions by the Jefferson County Sheriff, for example, are well documented, and Rohrbough was bothered that the views of all three guests might go unchallenged. Brown sees Fuselier as part of the investigation and therefore part of the problem. He also believes Fuselier had a conflict of interest because two of his sons attended Columbine (one graduated before the shootings).
The Brown family now famously reported Harris and fellow shooter Dylan Klebold, multiple times to the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office in the years leading up to the killings. The sheriff’s office did draw up a draft affidavit for a search warrant for Harris’s home, but never took it before a judge, and never acknowledged that until they were sued after the shootings. The sheriff thanked the Browns for their pre-Columbine vigilance by trying to refute their story and question whether their son Brooks Brown had prior knowledge of the shootings.
In the lead-up to the ten-year anniversary, Brown was also talking to an Oprah producer. “You’re going to hurt the [Columbine] families,” he said of the lineup. “Why are you doing this? This is the anniversary.”
The call ended up lasting maybe 40 minutes. In the end, Brown thinks Oprah listened. But he doesn’t think he himself stopped the show. “No one tells Oprah what to do,” he emphasizes.
The Denver Post at the time reported that Columbine principal Frank DeAngelis, who was also to appear, ended up opposing the show because it “was glorifying the two killers.”
Fuselier says an Oprah producer also told him on Saturday – two days before the show was to air – that it was being dropped. Fuselier did not disagree that the segment “focused too much” on the killers, but had also prepared an article on ways for parents to talk with their children.
Fuselier says that if critics have an issue with the Columbine investigation, they are “painting with a pretty broad brush” to include all the FBI too. Fuselier even recalls an instance where Brown gave him information that led to the successful prosecution of a post-Columbine threat. (Brown remembers talking to Fuselier, but on a different post-Columbine case.)
Spokeswoman Angela DePaul also has an answer as to whether anyone influenced Oprah.
“It was Ms. Winfrey’s sole decision to pull the show,” she says, and cleared up a somewhat open question when she added, “and there are no plans to air it in the future.”

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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…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.

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.

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.

Columbine – ‘Anatomy of a tragedy’ in Denver Post

April 12, 2009 at 11:22 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Columbine is in the media today with another review of my book Columbine: A True Crime Story, a victim, the killers and the nation’s search for answers.

The thorough, well-done review in the Denver Post was done by Keith Coffman.

The review begins, “The Columbine massacre a decade ago was one of the most widely — if inaccurately — reported crime stories in American history. 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.”

I thought Coffman did an excellent job summarizing but also bringing out the new items and pointing out the differing conclusions about the causes behind Columbine. He writes, “Kass believes the combination of the teens’ mental illness… and the isolation of suburbia produced the rampage.”

Coffman is a Colorado-based freelance journalist who has written about Columbine for Reuters, The Denver Post and the governor’s Columbine Review Commission.

Columbine book review

April 11, 2009 at 11:22 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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I’m going to start near the end of a recent review mentioning my book:

“For a more restrained, if less glittering, take on the murders, pick up Jeff Kass’ “Columbine: A True Crime Story.” Although I could have done without its forays into the sociology of suburbia and the West, and wished Kass had compressed his extensive treatment of Isaiah Schoels’ family and their publicity hound spokesman, the book is mostly a no-nonsense look at the crime, its background and Jeffco’s coverup.”

The review is in today’s (Saturday) Denver Post, written by columnist Vince Carroll. I used to work with Carroll at the Rocky, but as he points out in the column “we barely knew each other.”

There is more to the review on my book. But I am giving you the end of the column because the first part points out some shortcomings in another Columbine book. You can read up on it for yourself, and decide for yourself. But now you’ve got some facts.

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