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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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…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…Part VI, Bloggers

April 23, 2010 at 11:43 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Lev Grossman, who wrote the TIME‘s uneven, ten-year piece on ColumbineThe Meaning Of Murder,” also penned TIME‘s story on its Person of the Year 2006: You. “You” meaning the bloggers and other Internet posters “For seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game,” Grossman explained. But many of those who blogged about Columbine on the ten-year may not have read Grossman’s article.
Aberdeen, South Dakota resident David Newquist was typical. He says his blog, “Northern Valley Beacon,” is “news notes, and observations…with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media-old and new.” On October 18, 2009 he praised an essay in O The Oprah Magazine by Susan Klebold, Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold’s mother. The essay, published nearly six months after the ten-year, garnered national attention. In a blog entry titled “Thank you, Susan Klebold” Newquist writes, “I am sure that it [the essay] will be maligned by the malice-minded, but for those who earnestly want to solve problems, the essay provides a basis for new understanding.”
Actually, even Susan Klebold would disagree with that statement. The title of her essay was, “I Will Never Know Why.” The only revelation was an indication she had met with an undisclosed number of victims parents: “On a few occasions I was contacted by the parents of some of the children killed at the school. These courageous individuals asked to meet privately so we could talk. Their compassion helped me survive.” If those three sentences were the basis of a “new understanding,” Newquist did not show it. And he took the same unknowledgeable tact when writing about the rest of Klebold’s essay. An Op-Ed I wrote for the Denver Post noted that the Klebold essay was sad not only for the lack of new revelations, but for not addressing “two of the most compelling and troubling statements the Klebolds have ever made about their son (statements that in both instances were also recanted).” I added, “Some of the stories Klebold told [in the essay] are eerily similar to others that already have been reported. For example, Klebold tells of how Dylan’s voice ‘sounded sharp’ when he said goodbye the morning of the shootings, which has been widely recounted. And Klebold talks of a survey indicating that ’83 percent of respondents said that the parents’ failure to teach Dylan and Eric proper values played a major part in the Columbine killings.’
“Yet in 2004, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a small piece after speaking with the Klebolds and noted, ‘(Dylan’s father) Tom had in front of him the poll results, news stories and documents showing that 83 percent of Americans had believed the parents were partly to blame.'”
The blogger “Must Read Faster” is Melissa Caldwell of Anniston, Alabama. “I’m a wife, a mother, and an avid lover of books!” she writes. “I love to read and love to talk about what I’m reading!” Which is, of course, great. But she notes that in reading about Columbine on the ten-year anniversary, “I was shocked to find out that police and teachers had had not just subtle hints but HUGE arrows pointing to these two guys way in advance! This tragedy could have been prevented if only things had been run a little better. If people had only listened and recognized the signs of mental illness these two were suffering from. It wasn’t as if they had hid it very well either…they slipped up and revealed some of their plans almost a year or so before the shootings took place! Teachers, the police and even their parents had chances to act, but none did.” Arguably all true (although the parents’ roles may be more open to debate). Caldwell’s reaction on the ten-year is typical, yet uninformed. Our knowledge of those things had been true for years given the ongoing revelations surrounding the police investigation.

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 – 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 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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