Anniversary Post-Mortem

The media's coverage of the Columbine anniversary was the journalistic equivalent of slow-pitch softball.

What if they gave a media event and only the media showed up?

That's not quite how things worked out on April 20, the one-year anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School, but it was closer to the truth than the press reporting about the would-be spectacle let on. Prior to that date, guesses regarding the number of people expected to attend observances at nearby Clement Park were generally in the 100,000 range. The actual total, however, was perhaps one-tenth that amount, with the majority being dedicated churchgoers who turned up at a candlelight vigil last Thursday evening that was widely ignored by TV types; no major national news outlets covered it live, and of their local equivalents, only Channel 2 aired the overwhelmingly Christian ceremony in its entirety. (Judaism got about three minutes of the hour-plus ceremony, with the rest of the world's religions being pretty much shut out.).

As for the "crowd" (for want of a better word) at what was supposed to be the centerpiece of the ceremonies, a so-called community remembrance staged at Clement Park Amphitheater that afternoon, it was remarkably sparse. The Rocky Mountain News's estimate of 2,500 souls on hand likely included participants on stage, camera technicians and the vast security force, whose members appeared to be absolutely paralyzed by boredom. Those of us who've been going to Clement Park since long before it became a national landmark have seen plenty of pleasant spring and summer afternoons that drew as many folks to the site. The only difference was that on most days, visitors walk, bike or skate around the lake, feed the ducks or play soccer instead of standing in a knot listening to speakers and chorales while dozens of cameras pan their faces in search of the slightest sign of grief. No wonder that about half of the Columbine student body chose to be anywhere else but there.

The desperation of media types to illustrate their stories was even more obvious in a portion of the park designated as a "free speech" area. Precious few individuals felt the need to exercise their inalienable rights at this location on April 20: Aside from about eight individuals participating in a drumming circle assembled by an organization called TREACE, or Truth and Peace in Action (they pounded away near a banner for Rupp's Drums, the local music shop that supplied at least some of the instruments), the main attractions were thirteen wooden crosses built by Illinois carpenter Greg Zanis that had once been planted on Rebel Hill directly behind the school. A short time after the remembrance concluded, the ratio of press representatives to mourners examining the crosses was roughly one to one, with camera operators quick to videotape the rare person who pinned anything to them. The next day, the News and the Denver Post published separate shots of one woman holding a cross and crying, probably because she was the only person to do so all day long.

Most of the local and national media focused on one-dimensional approaches such as this, even though some legitimate news stories arose the week of the anniversary -- thanks to lawsuits filed by families of several dead and wounded Columbine students. These suits raised important, and long-dormant, questions about the law-enforcement response to the assault, and they contained several fresh (and gripping) allegations, including suggestions that the bullet that killed Daniel Rohrbough may have been fired by someone from the Jeffco sheriff's department. But while such charges found their way into a reasonable percentage of press reports, their impact was lessened by their juxtaposition with a seemingly endless barrage of ultra-sensitive profiles concentrating on feelings and healing. Nearly every media outlet got into the latter game -- even sports specialist ESPN, which ran a long package about victim Lauren Townshend's mom, Dawn Anna, on April 20. The sports tie-in? Lauren had been on the Columbine volleyball team.

Reps from Jefferson County Public Schools, which oversaw most of the anniversary events, should have been pleased by the softness of the stories. After all, they'd demanded it. At press summits held in March, Rick Kaufman, the organization's spokesman, explicitly stated the desire for coverage that looked forward, not back, with Sue Petrone, mother of Daniel Rohrbough, pointedly asking that the names of murderers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris not be mentioned in anniversary stories ("The Making of a Media Event," April 6) -- and in the main, the media capitulated. Petrone's appeal for stations not to screen original footage from the massacre was less of a success; the familiar videotape appeared on a number of broadcasts, including CBS's The Early Show and a slew of Fox News programs. So Jeffco schools struck back with an extraordinary "media advisory" on April 18. It read:

"The Columbine staff, students and community have expressed grave concerns about how the media are covering the first anniversary of the Columbine tragedy this week. Despite repeated requests, many media are continuing to show very disturbing images of April 20, 1999. These images are creating great stress in our community, and we are receiving numerous phone calls complaining about the coverage.

"We urge you to consider the emotional well-being of the Columbine students, staff and community as you choose the footage you show in conjunction with anniversary stories. Sufficient positive footage has been shot by all of the media and should be used in place of the disturbing negative images of a year ago."

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