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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:

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."

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.

The spirit of cooperation is in the air. But as the assemblage filters out of the Ascot, it's clear that it only goes so far. "I understand why she asked that," says one network bigwig to another, referencing Petrone's call for Harris, Klebold and videotape of their treachery to be cut out of anniversary coverage. "But it's not going to happen. It's just not going to happen."

Come on, guys: Can't we all just get along?

Last April 22, two days after the Columbine shootings, News publisher Larry Strutton wrote "A Letter to Our Community," in which he pledged that his paper would "lead the charge" in either financing a new school or rebuilding the damaged campus -- and while the News isn't out front from a dollars-and-cents standpoint, it hasn't entirely gone back on Strutton's pledge. A reliable source reveals that in addition to loads of free advertising space, the News has ponied up approximately $31,000 in cash. This same source says that although the Post has donated ad space, too, it hasn't parted with any folding green. If HOPE moneytenders are smart, they'll publicize this information soon, to put the papers in a position of having to top each other. To hell with a newspaper war; how about a compassion war?

The circulation war is already raging: Featured in this space last week was a News memo asking employees to watch out for attempts by the Post to inflate its numbers by dumping copies. But a Post worker discloses that staffers there received a nearly identical memo several weeks back accusing the News of the same sin. Add to that the testimony of Linda Lyman, who works at an area school. She says her school ordered the Sunday News, only to have issues start showing up several other days of the week -- and after she called to ask for the extras to be cut off, they began coming even more frequently. The News is now arriving six days a week, Lyman reports, with most of them being tossed directly into recycling bins "still in their blue plastic bags."

So they can be turned into more newspapers, I guess.

Have comments, tips or complaints about the media? E-mail "The Message" at Michael_Roberts@westword.com. To read related stories, visit www.westword.com.

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