Back-to-School Special

The media go on a Columbine rampage.

No one's calling for a ban on Columbine stories, least of all Westword, which put one of its own, "Doom Rules," on its August 5 cover. But the only thing accomplished by a story like the News' July 27 "Columbine Killers Had Help, Jeffco Sheriff Says," which reported the same unfounded speculations loose-lipped Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone had been spewing for months as if they were something new, was to set the stage for a followup -- in this case, the embarrassingly headlined July 29 "No Third Gunman." If the press is to play a constructive post-Columbine role, it will be by offering pieces that encourage people to think about the implications of what happened at the school rather than pick at its scabs.

Too bad so many Band-Aids were needed during the coverage of Columbine's reopening. When the clock struck five here early on August 16, the New York-based morning shows went live, and after the networks' correspondents at Clement Park completed their initial batch of standups, they moved on to chats with willing interviewees. Lieutenant John Kiekbusch, a mouthpiece for the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department, happily moved from tent to tent in the media area, willingly walking alongside NBC's Avila for a staged shot intended to provide some extra video, while a Columbine mom and a pair of students wound up in the spotlight for a separate interrogation. One of the teens, Columbine student Katie Crona, is among the de facto stars created by the media in the attack's aftermath; because she's bright, articulate and telegenic (she bears more than a passing resemblance to Melissa Joan Hart, star of Sabrina, The Teenage Witch), she's become a favorite camera subject. After the chat was finished, Crona was given some special parting gifts -- a pair of T-shirts and a couple of nifty commemorative caps.

By 7 a.m., attention had shifted to the front of Columbine, where the human chain had started to form. But instead of actually obstructing the media's view of the students, it created a visual that was far more evocative than unadorned shots of kids walking down a sidewalk would have been. Moreover, the decision to stage a pep rally at the south end of the campus when almost all of the school's parking is to the north meant that virtually the entire student body had to parade past the press outpost at Leawood Park, directly across the street from Columbine's main entrance. That Leawood is a place where many parents drop off their students created another problem: Anyone wearing a "We Are...Columbine" T-shirt who appeared there was immediately swarmed by camera crews and other reporters. Not that all of them minded. A number of parents and their progeny eagerly lined up for a little face time -- and when the cameras turned off, they gabbed with any journalist with a pad and pen. At 7:20 a.m., a school security person checking identification cards interrupted an interview involving a woman accompanied by two female Columbine students to say that the girls needed to hurry on to school or they'd be late. They shooed him away and kept right on talking.

The rally itself was covered by a media pool -- a decision supposedly made to give the students some privacy. But the presentation was actually an elaborate show put together with the whole country in mind. Combined with the other elements thoughtfully packaged by the school district, this footage was a bonanza for news departments; the anger of parents such as Brian Rohrbough, father of the late Daniel Rohrbough, that no specific tribute to the dead was made from the stage was an added bonus. That evening, both Channel 2 and Channel 7 devoted the first ten minutes or so of their newscasts to various Columbine reports, MSNBC's The News managed five minutes more than that, Craig Scott was again profiled on CNN, and on and on and on.

The morning of August 17 brought more of the same. Even an earthquake in Turkey in which untold hundreds died couldn't prevent Katie Couric from reinterviewing Katie Crona during the first half-hour of the Today show, and Good Morning America teased an appearance by Attorney General Janet Reno regarding a new anti-violence ad campaign with those helicopter shots of Columbine students running for their lives. Meanwhile, the Post's Joanne Ostrow suggested that the coverage of the return to Columbine had been more restrained than had been anticipated.

Thank goodness. It would have been a shame if it had gone overboard.

Jay Marvin, who's worked the afternoon shift at KHOW-AM/630 for the past several years, much to the delight of anyone who thought intelligent, passionate gab was a thing of the past, publicly announced that he was abandoning the station for health reasons in September last year. In the months that followed, Marvin made a gag out of his failure to disappear, calling his program "the world's longest going-away show." Now, however, he's once again planning to depart -- his last appearance on KHOW is slated for Friday, August 20 -- and this time, he swears it's really going to happen.

"The first time I was supposed to leave, I really was sick," he insists. "But when my deal fell through, I went back to my doctors, who are great, and I've been able to get around that. I could stay if I wanted to, but this is basically an offer that I can't refuse. I love Denver, and it's really hard to leave, because there are so many people here that I love. But I'm 46 years old, man, and I've got to get it while I can."

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