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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."

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.

But the most telling television moment occurred on Today, where Katie Couric conversed with Michael Shoels, stepfather of murdered student Isaiah Shoels, and Craig Scott, brother of Rachel Scott. Couric's interview with this pair had been the poignant highpoint of the TV coverage immediately following the shootings, with Shoels and Scott holding hands as they attempted to express their agony. But there was no recapturing this lightning: Scott, who was underdressed for the temperature, spent most of the interview shuddering, while Shoels went off on a rant about how he'd been forced to leave Colorado because of racism and prejudice. The emotions this time around weren't nearly as touching.

The show went on, of course, but did so modestly. A moment-of-silence ceremony led by Governor Bill Owens lured far short of a throng of onlookers (according to the on-screen clock on CNN, the silence began more than a minute after the 11:21 a.m. time scheduled), and the multitudes failed to arrive at Clement Park despite reports from Channel 7's Anne Trujillo and Mitch Jelniker that people were "streaming in." Afterward, press sorts studiously avoided mentioning the smallish size of the audience, fearing, perhaps, that this admission would make them seem out of touch. But the disappearance of Columbine stories in the days that followed was so sudden that it almost seemed like a manifestation of collective guilt. As if.

By voting with their feet, however, Denverites sent the media a powerful message. Many of the thousands who stayed away from Clement Park on April 20 were undoubtedly saddened by memories of a year ago -- but they saw no reason to put their emotions on parade for the entertainment of others.

Life doesn't have to be a TV show, you know?

Have comments, tips or complaints about the media? E-mail "The Message" at Michael.Roberts@westword.com.

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