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.

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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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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, 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.

Columbine and the real thing

July 5, 2009 at 7:55 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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My last book signing for Columbine: A True Crime Story taught a lesson about how there is no substitute for the real thing.

The signing was at the Houston Barnes & Noble across from the massive, famous Galleria chock full of retail stores. The significance was that I was with Michael Shoels, the father of Isaiah Shoels, who was killed at Columbine.

We must have looked like an odd couple; me a short white guy in a tie and Michael a tall black man dressed all in black. We have known each other for almost ten years, since I started writing the Columbine book, and it meant a lot to be with him in Houston. I felt proud to share the moment with Michael because he and his family had opened up to me long, long before I had a book contract, and believed in me as an honest person and a book author. And the tour was part of proving I could publish the book. (I was also told, in Houston, that my book was required reading for a course in criminal profiling at Rice University.)

The final chapter of my book is about the Shoels family. Early on, they were amongst the most critical of the victims families, questioning the school, police, and killers’ parents. The Shoels, in turn, became amongst the most criticized of the victims’ families. People said their stances and lawsuits (among the first to emerge from Columbine) were grandstanding, opportunism, and money-grubbing. But no matter how hard you try to tell the story, it is no substitute for the real thing: Being there alongside a victims family. To hear Michael tell his stories brought up old emotions, and new emotions, as he recounted his feelings and fights for information. And Michael reminded people only the way a victims family can: Columbine never goes away.

Buy Columbine: A True Crime Story, a victim, the killers and the nation’s search for answers on Amazon.

Columbine and Jonesboro school shootings and Mike Huckabee

June 20, 2009 at 1:44 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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I was in Jonesboro, Ark. for the book tour Friday night to discuss Columbine and, according to one story, I beat Mike Huckabee.

A photographer from the Jonesboro Sun said he once attended a three-hour booksigning by Mike Huckabee (I think it was some years ago) when Huckabee was Arkansas governor. Huckabee sold two books.

While I beat that record Friday I have little doubt Huckabee, the prominent conservative with his own talk show on Fox News, would today beat me (and his own record).

But more down to substance, I did not do an actual talk Friday but a sit-down, meet and greet (and hopefully sign) book appearance.

One woman told of how she had been a teacher before Columbine, and expressed concerns to the school about a student. Nothing happened, and the student later committed suicide. That would not happen today, I believe, because post-Columbine warning signs about problem students are taken much more seriously, whether the issue is suicide or homicide. (Although, notably, school shooters often express a desire to die in the course of the shootings. But that’s another story.)

One man did not believe gun control was the answer. While I could argue that the more barriers you put in front of someone to getting guns, the harder it is to get them, it is also likely that the Columbine killers would have gotten their guns no matter what. Three of the four were purchased, legally, at a gun show. The fourth was purchased casually through a friend of a friend type situation.

One woman who made a beeline to my table said she heard my book was the more accurate Columbine book, and scooped it up.

I ended my two-hour session sitting around with a bunch of local teenagers. They were smart, sassy, and bored. And I thank them for buying a book with graduation money.

Columbine and Virginia Tech school shooting memorials

June 15, 2009 at 1:47 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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I visited the memorial to the Virginia Tech school shooting victims today, just over two years after I followed a Columbine parent there.

April 20, 2007 was the eight-year anniversary of Columbine and four days after the Tech shootings left 33 dead, including the killer. Tech is the largest mass shooting in U.S. history. Columbine is the deadliest high school shooting.A terrible torch was passed on that day when Michael Shoels, the father of slain Columbine student Isaiah Shoels, traveled to Blacksburg, Virginia with his traveling gospel of grief counseling and civics lesson.

As I visited the Tech memorial a little after noon today, a few things struck me. After the shootings, 33 thick squares of pale ‘Hokie Stone’ (named for the school nickname) ringed the crest of the central grassy quad area known as Drillfield. One controversial stone, it seemed clear, was for the shooter. Similar things happened after Columbine, such as when at least one person posted crosses for the Colorado shooters.

School shooters may be in anguish, but I think most people believe it is inappropriate to memorialize them alongside the victims.

The permanent memorial at Virginia Tech is an arc of 32 square stones. Each is about the size of an ice bucket, near where the original stones were placed. Each stone is engraved with the name of a victim, and a sprig of fresh flowers leaned against each stone. (I wonder if they are changed every day.) The Tech memorial is powerful, but smaller and more low-key than the Columbine Memorial, which has written remembrances to the victims, quotes from community members, and envelops people with stone walls as they walk inside. The Columbine Memorial more fully shuts out the rest of the world. That Tech even has a memorial also differs from Columbine: It took several years to raise the money for the Columbine Memorial.

Tech today was certainly quieter than the day I was there. No satellite trucks. The dozens of reporters, and hundreds of mourners, were gone. But the memories were still there. And that’s how it should be.

Columbine book reading in Denver

May 28, 2009 at 3:18 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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I will have a Columbine book reading next Thursday June 4 at Campo de Fiori in Denver from 6 p.m. to 7:30.

Don’t be confused: Campo is an Italian restaurant, but is co-owned (or something or other) by my friend Josh Hanfling. He has graciously allowed me to use the space for a book event.

Columbine: A True Crime Story, a victim, the killers and the nation’s search for answers is the first book to tell the complete story of Columbine, and the common denominators among school shooters across the country.

This is also a make-up for the first booksigning at Tattered Cover that went well but was slightly battered by a wicked spring snowstorm.

Copies of the book will be available for purchase at Campo.

Campo will provide appetizers. Cash bar.

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