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 – 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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Columbine Culture of Honor

April 26, 2009 at 3:18 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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“Columbine: Outcasts Seeking ‘Honor'” was the title of a recent Q and A I did on Columbine and other school shootings.

“If I had to sum up 336 pages and ten years into one word, I’d say it was vengeance,” I began on the motivation of the Columbine killers. “Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were angry that they were at the bottom rung of the social ladder. And Columbine High School was a symbol of the social order that put them there.”

The Q and A was for The Crime Report a well-respected Web site that covers criminal justice and journalism issues. The Q and A drew on the work from my newly released book Columbine: A True Crime Story, a victim, the killers and the nation’s search for answers.

One of the key points, aside from motivation itself, is that the Columbine shooters share certain characteristics with other school shooters.

The Q and A goes on to discuss a number of other issues, including media coverage on the 10-year anniversary. I point out, contrary to the current trend of Columbine coverage, “As the 10-year anniversary stories on Columbine arrive, one common theme is that the media got its initial reporting wrong. That is true. Yet the public record was also corrected pretty quickly.”

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.

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