Back-to-School Special

The media go on a Columbine rampage.

It was 4:45 a.m. Monday, August 16 -- the day students came back to Columbine High School for the first time since April 20, when twelve students and a teacher were murdered there -- and while the campus was blessedly peaceful, it wasn't silent. The building itself was aglow as a street sweeper motored across an adjacent parking lot, rounding up every scrap of unsightly rubbish. Squeaky-voiced Jefferson County School District spokesman Rick Kaufman was also on hand, doing a last-minute inspection from the driver's seat of a sputtering golf cart. His transport was unmarked, but the carts driven by workmen barricading off an entrance to close-by Clement Park were emblazoned with "Guest Relations." The national media had just returned to the area with the largest force in months. Wouldn't want the press to feel unwelcome.

If this level of accommodation seems surprising, it shouldn't be. Jeffco schools personnel had figured that local and national journalists would show up en masse for Columbine's fall kickoff, and they were right. A five-minute stroll from the entrance was a "bullpen" that featured eleven satellite trucks, a slew of supporting vehicles vomiting multi-hued cables from their rear hatches, so much artificial light that the encampment might well have been visible from outer space, and dozens of crew members and on-air talent types operating under or near a series of white-peaked tents that resembled a mini-Denver International Airport. To keep this horde happy, school officials had devised a plan they hoped would protect students, parents and faculty from the brand of pestering that has been part of their lives for the past four months, even as it provided visuals that made everyone involved look good. But the result was yet another made-for-TV event in a tragedy whose coverage seems to be getting worse and even more formulaic as time goes by. With revelations in desperately short supply, there's little left but exploitation -- and that doesn't figure to change anytime soon.

News outlets in Colorado and beyond have exerted a great deal of effort to keep the Columbine story alive, and understandably so: With so many hours of airtime or pages of newsprint to fill, having an old reliable available is a tremendous convenience. Examples of this strategy abounded on television in the weeks leading up to the first day of school. CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox and CNN made a habit of including Columbine-related packages in their primary newscasts, thereby giving editors more opportunities to replay videotape of a bloodied Patrick Ireland toppling out of the library window and/or helicopter shots of terrified students fleeing the building on the day of the killings. (This footage was also trotted out in connection with other shooting incidents, including this month's assault on a Jewish community center in suburban Los Angeles.) Predictably, many of these reports were every bit as superficial and superfluous as the Jim Avila piece that appeared on the August 15 edition of the NBC Nightly News. Columbine parents had announced that they would form a human chain along Pierce Street in front of the school on the morning of its reopening in order to protect students from the prying eyes of the media, but Avila, in a blatant and ridiculous use of spin, characterized it instead as a "cocoon of support."

Such Orwellian language tricks are typical of NBC's chosen way of telling this particular tale. The network has arguably gotten more favorable notices from Columbine than any other major news organization, thanks mainly to Today anchor Katie Couric's memorable, nakedly emotional interview with Michael Shoels, the stepfather of shooting victim Isaiah Shoels, and Craig Scott, the brother of the late Rachel Scott. But when Couric complained on-air last week that she feels uncomfortable letting her children watch the news because it's so bloody nowadays, her words couldn't disguise the fact that NBC's programming places more focus on carnage than any of its competitors. Why? Because it must feed two cable networks, MSNBC and CNBC, as well as the multi-night Dateline newsmagazine -- and a story that can be dragged out indefinitely, like Columbine or the investigation into the death of JonBenét Ramsey, aids this cause immeasurably. Clearly, NBC personnel understand that such a tack can be double-edged, and they try to blunt it with overt expressions of sensitivity. For instance, on the August 15 edition of Sunday Today, Soledad O'Brien noted sympathetically that many people in Littleton wished the media would back off from Columbine and allow them to get on with their lives. But after nodding in agreement, co-host Jack Ford claimed that people in the rest of the country were deeply interested in the topic and deserved to be kept informed. In other words, we understand, but we're not going to leave you alone.

The major Denver TV stations have been playing this same game for months, to similarly distasteful effect. In the weeks leading up to August 16, everything from an art show by Columbine students to counter-terrorist exercises by a local law-enforcement agency was deemed a dandy excuse to dish out more post-shootings angst. Among the guiltiest in this regard was KCNC-TV/Channel 4, which endlessly previewed an August 15 special dubbed Reclaiming Columbine -- -and didn't let an opportunity pass to remind viewers that they could expect "full coverage" of the students' return on Channel 4, which seemed less a promise than a threat. But KMGH-TV/Channel 7 and KWGN-TV/Channel 2 have regularly engaged in excess, too, and KUSA-TV/Channel 9 leads the pack when it comes to elaborate graphics and other show-bizzy affectations that threaten to turn what is a very real, very painful, very personal story for so many Coloradans into mere entertainment.

And that's not the only way in which Channel 9 has stumbled. As noted in the September Brill's Content, a media mag overseen by Court TV creator Steven Brill, the station went live during the April 20 siege with comments from a guy who said he was a Columbine student. When he turned out to be a Utah snowboarder, the embarrassment wasn't Channel 9's alone; CNN, the New York Times and other major news organs used the interview as well.

Also in the current Content is a letter from Denver Post staffer Mark Obmascik chiding the magazine for "In Their Backyard," an article written for the July/August edition by Julie Scelfo. The worshipful piece, which described the Rocky Mountain News' coverage of Columbine in the immediate aftermath of the massacre (and the alleged thinking behind that coverage), was practically a press release for News editor John Temple, who was described as "the kind of journalist colleagues casually describe as brilliant and competitors regard warily." Although Scelfo offered a few less-than-flattering details -- the News running a funeral notice for a student who was still very much in the land of the living and wrongly identifying another Columbiner as a member of the Trenchcoat Mafia -- Obmascik pointed out that she made no mention of an April 24 item by frequently unreliable gossip columnist Norm Clarke about the discovery of an alleged suicide note left on the Internet by gunman Eric Harris, a "scoop" almost immediately dismissed by police as completely bogus. "If the New York Times or the Washington Post got suckered by an Internet hoax, called a live person dead, and erroneously labeled a teenager as a member of a controversial school clique, would you run the same puffy story?" Obmascik asks. (Last month The American Journalism Review published a much duller, but less puffy, account of the Post's Columbine response.)

Still, "In Their Backyard" does open a window onto the News' decision-making in regard to Columbine, particularly Temple's determination to concentrate on victims, be they dead or alive. But what was justifiable early on has become increasingly annoying with the passage of time. The News has run a staggering number of how-are-they-doing-now? reports, many on the slenderest pretexts imaginable- -- like the remodeling of survivor Sean Graves's home, which was celebrated with a not-exactly-fascinating August 10 cover photo of Graves's father and younger brother standing by some bare wood. The paper has also displayed an appetite for ghoulishness, epitomized by an August 6 article about what would have been the late Rachel Scott's eighteenth birthday. On one hand, it's hard to blame the News for going ahead with such a story, particularly since Scott's parents clearly cooperated with it and perhaps even encouraged it. But by playing it big and up front, with not one, but two splashy color photos of the dead girl's grave, the News risked coming across as more delighted about the scoop than sensitive to the feelings of the readership as a whole.

Veteran News scribe Gene Amole addressed such media saturation in an August 15 column headlined "Let Columbine Open Media-Free." Amole cast most of the blame for the state of affairs on television, even going so far as to imply that "the emergence of around-the-clock cable news networks" was responsible for print excesses. But, he added, "we get caught up in the competitive necessity to report in greater depth than the story probably deserves because we are afraid if we don't, our competitor will. In a newspaper war, we dare not give them that edge." Unfortunately, any weight this argument might have carried was instantly undercut by its presence inside an edition of the News positively laden with articles and photographs guilty of nearly every sin Amole catalogued. The cover was dominated by a photo of people who had survived the rampage in the school library and a banner that read "Reclaiming Columbine: Students going back Monday hope for a 'normal' return to school" -- something the News' approach couldn't help but prevent. Inside was more of the same: "Moving On," a compendium of observations by students that was virtually indistinguishable from countless others published in the News since April; "Teen Survivors Celebrate the Better Days," which zeroed in on another batch of students; "A New Start," a Q&A with Columbine sophomores who somehow had escaped grilling in the other two efforts; and "Rockin' Back to School," a report about a Christian-oriented concert at 18,000-seat Fiddler's Green that attracted "hundreds of teens" interested in again hearing the Columbine anthem "Friend of Mine." For a change of pace, "Rockin'" reporter Laura Watt quoted students from schools other than Columbine -- maybe because there were no Columbine students left to talk to.

In comparison with the News' Columbine dog-piling, the Post has been considerably more restrained. The Post, too, has run more than its share of unnecessary Columbine stories and put questionable emphasis on others, like the keen-grasp-of-the-obvious August 16 report "Churches Support Columbine Students," about sermons at south Jeffco houses of worship. But in the past several weeks, the Post has run considerably fewer Columbine articles than the News and at times has actually attempted to examine some of the issues raised by the shootings rather than simply milking them again. On August 15, for instance, the Post put out a "Back to School" supplement that used Columbine as a jumping-off point to examine questions of safety and community at schools everywhere. There were few revelations contained therein, but the section's emphasis on analysis over melodrama was a welcome step in the right direction.

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."

As usual, Marvin declines to go into details about where he's headed until all of the details are worked out, just as KHOW programmer Robin Bertolucci was close-mouthed at press time about Marvin's successor. But Marvin credits the time he's spent in Colorado with helping him moderate the explosive anger that once made his shift such an unpredictable one. "I don't know if it's quite right to say I'm kinder and gentler than I was," he says. "It's just that I realized that I couldn't go on the radio and tell people to be nicer and more understanding and that we could work together to make a less cruel world if I was being an asshole.

"I really got rocked by Columbine," he goes on. "When that whole thing happened, I really hoped that we wouldn't start pointing fingers at young adults and would step back instead and start examining our behavior. And even though a lot of people haven't done that, I certainly have. Maybe people who've heard me before will hear me now and say, 'What the hell happened to him?' But if you don't change and grow and examine things constantly in this business, you become one-dimensional, and then you die. And the same goes for everybody else. I think it's fine to put stickers on your car that say 'We are Columbine,' but you also have to make a commitment to make a change within yourself. How huge is that?"


On Thursday, August 12, Ulu, a polar bear who is the Denver Zoo's number-one procreator (she spawned star cubs Klondike and Snow, as well as current furballs Ulaq and Berit) got an unexpected snack when a woman tossed two pounds of raw meat in her cage. Because the woman seemed unstable, zoo officials feared that the meat, which Ulu promptly scarfed down, had been dipped in anti-freeze; as a precautionary measure, they fed her an antidote -- a quart of vodka mixed with fruit juice. Most news organizations played the story down, noting that there was no proof any poisoning had taken place. But Channel 4, the station that turned Klondike and Snow into a virtual cottage industry, reacted hysterically, leading its 10 p.m. newscast with the report and framing a live update with the graphic "Bears Attacked."

A more accurate banner would have been "Bear Fed." The next morning Ulu was just fine, with the possible exception of a minor hangover. Still, the Channel 4 treatment opens up new possibilities for stories on slow news days. Imagine: "Man attacked! Denver resident has steak and screwdriver at Morton's!"

Talk about hard to swallow.

Have comments, tips or complaints about the media? E-mail "The Message" at Michael_Roberts @westword.com.

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