The Making of a Media Event

The Columbine anniversary promises to be the biggest thing since...well, Columbine.

 Journalists love anniversaries -- and why not? It's all but impossible to plan in advance for the specifics of breaking news, since in most cases no one knows where, when or how it will happen, or whether it will ultimately achieve a lasting significance. But story commemorations don't suffer from these flaws. They supply news organizations with a built-in time hook, allow for reporting in advance (a tremendous luxury), and often inspire productions or demonstrations by the people who were originally affected that generate new material for the evening broadcast or the morning paper.

The one-year anniversary of the killings at Columbine High School, on April 20, sports all these elements and more -- and while it's too soon to know if it will wind up being a relatively low-key remembrance or the most telegenic spectacle of this young year, Jefferson County Public Schools, Columbine's governing body, appears to be banking on the latter prospect. As part of its preparations for the big day, Jeffco schools staged peculiar meetings with the media on March 6 and March 23 that were intended to, in the words of school spokesman Rick Kaufman, "help us help you" in reporting about the district's latest camera-friendly extravaganza. But what it really did was underline the strange symbiosis between newsmakers interested in spinning coverage and news gatherers who want to get the goods without looking like ghouls.

A peek inside the notebook:

Susan Goldstein

March 6: At 10 a.m., Jeffco school officials gather around a conference table in a room at the Educational Services Center in Golden. Kaufman is on hand, as is Marilyn Saltzman and other communications types. They're joined by several folks involved in anniversary planning, including Gail O'Brien from HOPE (Healing of People Everywhere), the group raising money to build a new library for the school, and the district's area administrator, Sally Blanchard.

The officials far outnumber the reporters, who mainly represent suburban or neighborhood publications, including the Columbine Courier's James Nicodemus and the Lakewood Sentinel's LeRoy Standish. Kaufman waits for fifteen minutes to give people from the dailies time to arrive; after all, this performance is largely for them (personnel from local TV and radio stations attended a separate meeting). Kaufman's presentation is already under way when Denver Post state editor Evan Dreyer and John Sunderland, representing the Post's photography department, straggle in. The News is a no-show, but the next day, the paper somehow manages to print a story based on info divulged at the meeting. Can't pass up an opportunity to get "Columbine" into a headline.

Kaufman begins with a preliminary rundown of the April 20 calendar: some private events for students and staff, plus a downtown ceremony overseen by Governor Bill Owens in the morning; speeches and music in Clement Park, adjacent to Columbine, in the afternoon; a candlelight vigil at night. He adds that parents and residents have requested that the press treat the 30,000 people he expects at the affair "politely and respectfully," and to keep the focus off killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold by concentrating on the anniversary's theme, "A Time to Remember, a Time to Hope."

Then comes the meat of the matter. The press universally prefers to roam at will around all open areas (the school and its grounds are off-limits), and don't want to be "corralled," while school officials envision a "somewhat structured" environment. Jeffco's Saltzman tries to make restrictions sound like they're for the media's own good; she says there's no way to prevent out-of-town pranksters from showing up at Clement Park and "getting quoted in the New York Times when this is the first day they've ever been to Columbine." Blanchard, meanwhile, reveals that in their conversations with mental-health professionals, students complain "that they feel their choices were taken away by the press. They would prefer approaching the media if they want to talk, instead of you approaching them."

To address this concern, the Sentinel's Standish proposes that "maybe those who don't want to be interviewed could wear something." (A scarlet letter, perhaps?) Later, someone else floats a similar suggestion: Students who wouldn't mind baring their souls for the umpteenth time could wear "yes" buttons (shades of Cassie Bernall?), while those wishing to be left alone might adorn themselves with a "no." (Sure -- that could happen.) The Post's Sunderland feels that students might be more inclined to speak with the local media than its boorish national equivalent. ("If I had a Time magazine badge, I wouldn't show up that day," Kaufman jokes.) To let them know who's who, Sunderland goes on, his people could wear Post T-shirts. Or how about issuing special identification badges to everyone, with one color designating locals and another demarking national? And to make sure that each member of the press does his job in the least intrusive possible way, why not emblazon the badges with an ID number and a phone number people could dial to report bad behavior, just like the ones on the backs of interstate semis? (Imagine: "How's my reporting? Call 1-800-JERKWAD.")

The Jeffco officials dutifully jot down all these ideas. But the Courier's Nicodemus isn't sold on their workability. "The sheer numbers of people there will be extraordinary," he says. "It's not as if there'll be a board of education SWAT team to enforce this." He notes, "This seems like a very weird conversation."

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