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Anniversary Post-Mortem

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

In most instances, media decision-makers would have responded to such heavy-handedness with a polite but firm, "Thanks for the advice, but we'll do things our own way." But the press, in particular the local press, has been so cowed by accusations of inconsiderateness in Columbine's wake that it has contorted itself to prove otherwise; the decision by Channel 9 to have all of its anchors wear Columbine "Never Forgotten" pins during the anniversary week -- and to actively promote their sale during newscasts -- was a case in point. And too often, this mindset led to stories that were superficial and redundant.

In the weeks preceding the anniversary, for example, reporters obediently covered town-hall-type meetings that gathered select Columbine staffers, students and parents of the slain willing to be quizzed -- and predictably, the stories these sessions produced were obvious and practically interchangeable. A similar dearth of insight marked the round of media sit-downs conducted by Columbine principal Frank DeAngelis, who seems to be getting quite a kick out of his spotlight time. In interview after interview, DeAngelis delivered the same platitudes (often closing his eyes for seconds at a time as if trying to remember the canned quote appropriate to the moment) without being challenged about anything substantial. Plenty of other pre-anniversary reports followed the same formula, giving free rides to the same old sources rather than trying to scare up new ones. Why bother with enterprise when you're being spoon-fed all you need?

Granted, the Columbine story has been squeezed so hard for so long that most people in the know (with the notable exception of the parents of Harris and Klebold) have already spoken up. But a couple of those who'd mainly kept their thoughts to themselves finally gave in to the relentless pressure to talk as the anniversary neared. Patti Nielson, the art teacher who made the oft-played 911 call that brought police to Columbine on April 20, appeared at an early-April event sponsored by Redbook magazine in Washington, D.C., and granted an interview to NBC's Jamie Gangel that ran on Today; she also proved to be perhaps the most moving speaker at the community remembrance, largely because of her unblinking honesty. (Nielson told how she hid in a cupboard for over three hours during the rampage, wishing she had some way to write a note to her three children, urging them to be happy despite the way she thought she would die.)

Less fortunate in the way she was portrayed was Anne Marie Hochhalter, the last of the grievously wounded Columbine survivors to go before a camera -- Channel 9's, as it turned out. The profile of this young woman, whose injuries left her paralyzed, was the very model of mawkishness: lots of booming closeups dissolving into one another against the backdrop of a sorrowful piano air, leading inexorably to a stunningly exploitative sequence in which Hochhalter painfully moved from her wheelchair to her bed. A long, purposeful shot of Hochhalter's feet tilting at awkward, unnatural angles might not have been so egregious had it been placed in some greater context, but pathos seemed to be its sole reason for being. The annual features about stricken children on Jerry Lewis's Muscular Dystrophy Telethon are restrained in comparison.

Not that moderation was a key component in most Columbine coverage. The occasional story used Columbine as a jumping-off point for worthy discussions of significant issues (an April 18 John Miller piece on Good Morning America about what went right and wrong in the police's response to last year's violence stood out), but others went straight to la-la land; the topic of Peter Boyles's KHOW radio show during its final hour on April 18 was: "Is there a free-floating evil over our country?" Worse was the tendency to overplay any event with a Columbine connection. For instance, an April 13 rally at the Denver Civic Center commemorating National Youth Service Day attracted a relative handful of observers (the Post's ballpark figure of 200 may have been too high by a factor of four), but it received tons of pub anyway because Columbine survivor Patrick Ireland was among the speakers. The tight shots of attendees used by a couple of local TV stations seemed intended to mask the poor turnout.

The Denver dailies forced plenty of stories, too, like a James B. Meadow article in the April 19 News boasting that Columbine has attracted more donations than any other tragedy, as if this should be a matter of hometown pride. "Healing Pages," from the same day's Post, was even more laughable. The offering sported color reproductions of original stationery used by Columbine students -- but since the writing on the pages was impossible to read, transcriptions of the prose had to be printed next to them. Alert the Ridiculous Layout Hall of Fame.

On the next day, April 20, Columbine-related material dominated national airwaves even before the start of the community remembrance. The Early Show presented segments on shooting survivor Richard Castaldo; evangelically driven parent Darrell Scott, who chose the anniversary to release a book of writings by his late daughter, Rachel Scott; and teacher Beverly Williams and retired Columbine librarian Mary Swanson, participants in a book project of their own. MSNBC broadcast a piece on the Columbine lawsuits that correspondent Chip Reid downplayed as soon as it was over: "Today they're trying to put these lawsuits and the divisions aside and continue the healing process," he said. Onetime student Brooks Brown, who along with his parents has been among the most persistent critics of Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone, shared his views on Fox News. And on Later Today, starring Jodi Applegate, Asha Blake and Florence "Mrs. Brady" Henderson, a tribute to Columbine victims took place shortly before an interview with a child actress who's in a current series of Pepsi commercials. Guess school shootings are all part of our infotainment universe.

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