Photo Finish

Obscenity is in the eye of the beholder.

As you waited in supermarket checkout lines with your hotdogs and chips this past Memorial Day weekend, you could have picked up the Globe and found out how Frank Gifford was banned from his bedroom by Kathie Lee; you could have studied J. Lo's barely clad backside; you could even have seen accused wife-killer Robert Blake posing with some of his favorite firearms.

From the Star, you could have learned that "JFK Jr. & wife died with unborn child," that Bo Derek was haunted by the ghost of her husband and that "The Cad of Madison County," author Robert Waller, left his wife for a younger woman.

But you were not going to read anything in the National Enquirer, even though its previous edition had featured a Colorado-centric story headlined "15-year Anniversary of Photo that Cost Gary Hart the White House" -- a photo published in the Enquirer, of course. "Go ahead, follow me," Hart, a two-term senator from Colorado and the leading Democratic candidate in the 1988 presidential race, had told reporters asking about rumors of his womanizing. "You'll be bored." But they weren't, and when the Enquirer published a picture of Hart posing with a lapful of Donna Rice on a Miami cruise boat fortuitously named the Monkey Business, Hart's campaign was sunk. In its May 28 issue, the Enquirer referred to him as a "low-key international lawyer based in Denver"; Rice, meanwhile, is a stepmother of two who crusades against Internet pornography.

Although that issue reprised an ugly chapter in Colorado history, supermarkets didn't ban its sale. But just a week later, they deemed photographs of the dead Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris too gruesome for local consumption and took the tabloid off the shelves.

This in the same week that Denver Mayor Wellington Webb announced he's looking into publishing photos of people arrested for soliciting prostitutes. If his plan goes through -- and in these budget-strapped days, even thinking of publishing "john ads" in Denver's dailies is ludicrous -- newspapers sold in supermarkets around town could include pictures of men simply charged with, and not convicted of, a crime. And the crime of trying to buy a $25 blow job pales beside the horrific immensity of what Harris and Klebold did that day at Columbine.

Unlike those alleged johns, there's no way Harris and Klebold could be innocent; there's no denying the outcome of their actions -- fifteen dead, including the gunmen themselves. And seeing the killers as they ended their rampage -- not forever frozen in high-school yearbook photos that make them look no more dangerous than Eddie Haskell, or captured on that cafeteria tape as they stalked their fellow students, ninja-cool -- does a lot to show the grim, grisly reality. The Enquirer published only photos showing the dead killers, not their victims; that decision was so right that the tabloid could have skipped the tenuous "Was it suicide?" story, as well as the sanctimonious justification of the photos' publication by pastor Lou Sheldon.

Even so, the Enquirer's explanation was a lot easier to accept than the response from the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office -- the very department from which those photos were leaked. As word had spread that the Enquirer was looking for pictures that other media outlets, including Westword, already had access to, sheriff's deputies started calling around, asking reporters for their sources; they refused to give them up. And since they'd failed to cooperate with Jeffco's investigation, those media outlets were at least partly to blame for the Enquirer's publication of the photos, a Jeffco spokeswoman said last week.

So far, though, Jeffco's investigations have done little to inspire the media's confidence, much less cooperation.

This isn't the first time law-enforcement authorities have blamed the messenger, and it won't be the last. In early January 1996, the Globe published photographs of JonBenét Ramsey taken in the coroner's office -- and Boulder residents called for a boycott of any businesses selling the evil tabloids. (In retrospect, their energy would have been better spent calling for a full investigation of the murder.) At one point, even Jeffco got dragged into the wreckage, indicting both a Globe reporter/editor and a Boulder attorney for attempting to buy a copy of the JonBenét ransom note from a handwriting expert hired by the Ramsey team. That case dragged on for years before the attorney, Tom Miller, finally got his day in court -- and was quickly acquitted by a Jeffco jury.

You can't help but feel that Jeffco would like to be able to hold someone responsible for something connected with Columbine -- and if that means filing charges against an Enquirer reporter and the person who leaked/sold the photos to the tabloid, so much the better; after all, the legal research is already done.

Three years after the killings at Columbine, we're ready to see the ugly truth. Those photographs, like all of the documents connected with Columbine, have long belonged in the public domain. It is our horror to share. And confronting the unedited enormity of Columbine -- even in a checkout line -- is no more obscene than our supermarket obsession with celebrity.

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