Lights, Camera...No Comment

Two years after the shootings, 60 Minutes brings Columbine back to prime time -- and local officials get camera-shy.

These were matters worth reporting, Gelber figured, since they raised a number of issues regarding the true circumstances of the police response and the accuracy of the official timeline. But to do it properly meant securing interviews with Denver commanders and responding officers. A meeting was arranged between Ed Bradley and Mayor Wellington Webb to seek official authorization to speak to the Denver officers.

The answer was a big, fat "There is no monkey."

The official explanation for Denver's refusal to cooperate with the documentary crew was a concern over "potential" lawsuits. This was the same explanation offered to the Governor's Columbine Review Commission when the city abruptly pulled two officers scheduled to testify before the panel last summer. Yet any letters of intent to sue Denver filed by victims' families expired long ago, with no legal action taken. Although a federal lawsuit against Denver could still, in theory, be filed up to April 20 of this year, a state statute shifts liability for police agencies responding to a call for mutual aid to the agency that put out the call.

 
Jay Vollmar
 
Sitdowns: Victims' families had plenty to tell Ed Bradley; police sources were another matter.
photo courtesy of CBS News
Sitdowns: Victims' families had plenty to tell Ed Bradley; police sources were another matter.

The real reasons for not talking, sources inside the DPD told us, were political. Denver wasn't about to allow access to its officers if their stories called into question the actions of Jefferson County's commanders. The blue wall of silence must not be breached.

Gelber's team ended up talking to several Denver officers anyway. The conversations were off the record but highly illuminating. Many Denver officers were still angry about what they'd seen at Columbine. Some were sharply critical of Jeffco's commanders and the first deputies on the scene. Others defended the entire operation, insisting that no one could pass judgment on cops thrown into an impossible situation. Almost all of them were disgusted with the second-guessing of the past two years, as well as the gag order that had been imposed on them, and were dying to tell their side of the story.

But none of them would agree to appear on camera, for fear of losing their jobs.

Let Bradley Be Bradley

Most people have strange ideas about how television journalism works. They get these notions from movies, I suspect, in which TV journalists are invariably portrayed as lissome pariahs and obnoxious twits, chasing some poor slob with cameras and questions as he's trying to get from his house to his car.

Working with Gelber, I learned that ambush interviews, also known as "doorstepping," are far less common than Hollywood supposes. For one thing, they don't make for good television; just what journalistic point is made by a shot of the sanitation commissioner's rump as he waddles down the street, fumbling with his car keys?

Doorstepping is actually a tactic of last resort, spawned by the need to give the viewer at least a glimpse of the elusive bureaucrat who won't return your phone calls. Investigative programs such as 60 Minutes rely to a much greater degree on extensive face-to-face interviews conducted by its star correspondents, who try to cajole, coax, cross-examine, castigate or ignite the various opposing sides of the story -- whatever it takes to get them to explain themselves.

Fairness demands such interviews. The medium demands it, too. Shots of intrepid, trench-coated reporters standing outside the building where the elusive bureaucrat works (also known as "guilty building" shots) just aren't as satisfying as a sitdown with the sanitation commissioner himself. In some cases, the interview turns out to be cathartic for everyone involved; it could be an opportunity for Mr. Big Rump to defuse the situation, lay the blame on some higher-ups or explain that the missing money isn't missing after all -- rather than lurking, guiltily, in his guilty office.

The dramatic content of network magazine shows revolves around the sitdown. It's a formula that 60 Minutes invented and, with Mike Wallace and then Ed Bradley, has practically perfected. At the heart of every hard-nosed Bradley piece is at least one Confrontation Scene, in which the correspondent brings forth evidence of wrongdoing and demands an accounting from the powers that be. It's the moment in which Bradley gets to be Bradley -- complete with glacial glare, withering frown and headmaster voice dripping with skepticism.

It sounds theatrical, but the sitdowns aren't staged; CBS News standards require that the interview subjects are never provided the questions in advance. Still, the sitdowns are often the result of weeks or months of negotiations, during which the potential candidates are urged to tell their story to 20 million people; to respond to what CBS's reporting has uncovered; to take their chances in the arena, rather than be a no-show. The groundwork for these interviews is done by a team of reporters and producers, who also compose questions for the interview and brief the correspondent.

Bradley, of course, didn't spend nearly as much time in Denver on the Columbine project as Gelber and his team. He certainly didn't have to join in long lunches in the culinary wasteland of South Wadsworth, meeting with sources at Applebee's, Bennigan's and the International House of Pancakes, an experience their jaded New York palates won't soon forget. (Associate producer Michael Karzis spent so much time quizzing Columbine kids at the IHOP that the mere mention of "The Hopper" could cause him to mist up.) The star correspondent works on several stories with different teams of producers at the same time, and Bradley's travel schedule kept him moving; if he did have any spare time, he fled Denver as quickly as he could for his house in Woody Creek, down the road from Hunter Thompson.

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