The Making of a Media Event

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

March 23: By contrast with the earlier meeting, this get-together is obviously made for TV. It takes place at the Ascot Theatre on West Bowles Avenue, a facility that's just minutes from Columbine and houses S.H.O.U.T.S. (Students Helping Others Unite Together Socially), a gathering place for Columbiners that few local teens seem to haunt. A large red curtain forms a backdrop behind a dozen panelists, including Sue Petrone, mother of slain Columbine student Daniel Rohrbough. A multitude of TV cameras are pointed right at them, while more than fifty other press types mingle with Jeffco officials such as sheriff's department spokesman Steve Davis, who seems relaxed in the knowledge that his boss, John Stone, isn't present, and therefore won't be making any bizarre statements that Davis will have to explain away.

Master of ceremonies Kaufman kicks things off by listing the happenings scheduled for the anniversary. They're little different from those mentioned more than two weeks earlier, but now they have catchy names: Take the Bill Owens ceremony, which is now dubbed "The State of Colorado Remembers." Kaufman also displays the event's logo, which (no kidding) the school district has copyrighted. He mentions so frequently his desire that newspapers run the logo with all its stories that he sounds as if he has a piece of the action. Speaking of which, Creigh Kelley's subsequent discussion of the Columbine Memorial 5K Run, a scholarship fundraiser set to take place on April 16, heavily spotlights the race's financial sponsors, including Nike, Active.com, Johns Manville and the Gates Community Credit Union. Kelly also lauds the run's own logo, which was designed by Malcolm Farley, "the official artist of the U.S. Open and the NBA All-Star Game." Logo fever: Catch it!

Other speakers deal more directly with April 20. Petrone appeals for footage from the day of the attack and any mention of "the killers" to be completely excluded from coverage. Ann Himel of the Columbine Citizens Task Force voices a similar plea: She wants helicopters, whose sound still freaks out many in the area, to be kept far away from the school. For his part, Columbine student body president Mike Sheehan promises that "we'll be speaking to the student body about respecting media, and not to be so rude in that aspect." (That should do the trick.)

Later, when he's asked how many people are expected to attend the activities, Kaufman is noncommittal, but he mentions that 100,000 turned up at the one-year anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing -- which promptly gets reported in the News the next day as the school district's attendance estimate. Kaufman adds that because the event will occur just three days before Easter, "we're thinking that people may come on pilgrimages," adding, with the air of an expert, "The one-year anniversary is typically the largest event for tragedies of this type."

After Blanchard wishes "all of you in the media well in your personal journey of healing," a five-minute break is announced prior to a "media summit" intended to inform the press about the rules and regulations under which they'll be operating. Most of these dictates, like pool coverage of activities at the Clement Park amphitheater that are ostensibly open to everyone, and town-hall-style press opportunities as opposed to one-on-one interviews, don't sit well.

Also frustrating is the proposed quiz routine for Columbine principal Frank DeAngelis: a series of twenty-minute sit-downs from April 10-13, starting each day at 4 p.m. When Kaufman tells TV types that they'll have twenty minutes prior to their slot to set up equipment, and twenty minutes afterward to break it down, one producer announces that he needs a minimum of 45 minutes in advance and an hour afterward. Kaufman's reply is, in essence, "Tough," but he does apologize to the Chicago Tribune and the Philadelphia Inquirer for having to leave them off the schedule. In response to a subsequent question about whether reporters who get DeAngelis interviews the first couple of days must embargo their stories until everyone's gotten a shot, Kaufman asks if the media can police itself on this matter. That provokes the biggest laugh of the day.

Cordiality is generally the rule, but tension isn't far beneath the surface. Kaufman mentions that the going rate for pirate video shot inside Columbine when school is in session is reportedly $20,000 ("That was either Hard Copy or Inside Edition," he says), and tells the gathering, "Please do not call Columbine anymore. It is becoming more and more emotionally difficult for them. They are being inundated not only by media but by people wanting to do documentaries and so on. They just can't handle it, and if we push them too far, they will cut us off." The media sorts react by trying to demonstrate their responsibility. No one objects to the idea of putting ID and phone numbers on press badges, as the Post's Sunderland had advocated, because none of them would ever think of being pushy enough to trigger a complaint. Right? Then again, the press may not have to beg locals to open up: As the summit winds down, four people stand up to solicit publicity for separate events they are staging on or near April 20 -- and many reporters dutifully jot down their digits.

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