After nearly every startling episode that's taken place in Colorado over the past decade or so, assorted locals have looked TV-news cameras in the eye and delivered variations on the phrase "This sort of thing isn't supposed to happen here." So it was no surprise to hear Tom Grigg, the father of Platte Canyon High School student Cassidy Grigg, express this sentiment to Meredith Vieira during a Today show interview on September 28, the morning after 53-year-old Duane Morrison killed a student, Emily Keyes, and then himself in a second-floor classroom.
By now, however, such claims are extremely dubious. Simply put, these sorts of things -- situations so unlikely, bizarre or dreadful that they attract the notice of people around the country and the globe -- have happened here on a regular basis for years, and show no sign of stopping. Moreover, they're often marked by incongruous twists that keep the main story going. Consider that mere hours after appearing on Today with her husband and son, Lorena Grigg told the Rocky Mountain News that Cassidy had invented an anecdote about briefly defying Morrison because he "wanted to be a hero" -- which is precisely what Vieira had dubbed him.
Why do media eruptions like the one that followed Platte Canyon occur so commonly in Colorado? Is it sheer coincidence? Bad karma? Planetary alignment? Dunno. But reporters have parachuted into these parts so frequently that Christo could probably cover the entire state with the fabric.
Platte Canyon tragedy
Media-wise, some of the events and personalities that have seized the national and international imagination came and went rather quickly: Think of Marvin Heemeyer, who destroyed much of downtown Granby using a modified bulldozer in 2004. Others have lingered for month after month after month: The botched Kobe Bryant prosecution, the CU recruiting scandal and the uproar over professor Ward Churchill fit into this category. And then there are the select few, like the 1996 JonBenét Ramsey murder and the 1999 slayings at Columbine High School, that have become semi-permanent fixtures in American culture.
These last two incidents are capable of flaring up or spinning off tangents at the drop of a ratings point, and each recently did so: The Ramsey case spawned a frenzy after the arrest of false confessor John Mark Karr, while Columbine memories amplified curiosity about Platte Canyon to deafening levels. And if the waning of interest in the first matter just prior to the explosion of the second was a blessing for overwhelmed area residents, the ways in which both are playing out reveal plenty about the press's peripatetic attention span.
Boulder officials' decision not to charge Karr in JonBenét's death ended the debate about whether he was a perp or a twerp, but loads of other questions remain, most having to do with the behavior of Boulder District Attorney Mary Lacy and her staff. Predictably, networks and cable channels didn't want to expend additional resources to find answers, particularly given the amount of dough they'd already wasted. So since staging a few legal-expert shout-fests about whether or not Lacy is an idiot, they've covered Karr's journey through the California legal system as spartanly as possible.
Too bad the local media has followed suit. A post-mortem of Boulder's actions regarding Karr is long overdue and might yield many intriguing insights. Lacy's constituents should know, for example, if she could have better protected a young girl in Thailand who fascinated Karr by sharing information with Thai authorities rather than dragging him back to the United States, where he may soon get the chance to menace his fellow Americans. Porn charges against him in Sonoma County could be dismissed because authorities there have lost his computer, which contained much of the evidence against him. And even if he's convicted of something, he's apt to get off with time served and/or probation.
These days, though, area TV affiliates seldom conduct time-intensive investigations that don't involve hidden cameras, prurient or ripoff-oriented topics, or shots of sources speaking in shadow. That left an opening for KHOW talk-show yakkers Dan Caplis and Craig Silverman, who initially went after Lacy hard -- but they've since moved on to other matters. As for the Denver Post, the paper covered the Karr hoopla grudgingly and dumped out of it at the first opportunity; odds that the broadsheet will take Karr for another ride are extremely slender. The Rocky, meanwhile, was so committed to the Karr-did-it campaign, as evidenced by its repeated lionization of Lacy's main source, CU journalism professor Michael Tracey, that exploring the mistakes made in Boulder would make the tabloid look moronic by association.
Besides, the Rocky has an affinity for stories like Platte Canyon, and even though the paper tends to push the heartache button too frequently, there's no denying that its top work has been striking. The photo on its September 28 front page was the most memorable single image from the previous day, almost (but not quite) making up for the JonBenét-in-Pretty Baby cover that led the Rocky after Karr was taken into custody. And in addition to announcing the Cassidy Grigg reversal, the paper was the first to get an account of what happened inside the classroom from one of Morrison's six female hostages. Setting aside de rigueur horn-blowing about the interview being an "exclusive," writer Fernando Quintero's September 29 conversation with fifteen-year-old sophomore Lynna Long, who confirmed reports that Morrison molested the girls, was wrenching yet as sensitive as it could have been under the circumstances.
During the September 27 standoff, the local broadcast media generally avoided the worst pitfalls of Columbine. Granted, some misinformation got out; at least one local TV station circulated the rumor (probably picked up from CNN) that the gunman was a 35-year-old parent at the school. And there were occasional excesses, too, as when KOA's Roger Hudson and Lois Melkonian described students on a bus motoring away from the school as looking both "wide-eyed" and "pale" -- a superhuman bit of observation, since Hudson had been standing at the side of a dirt road as the vehicle drove past. Still, most outlets did a much better job of sticking to what was known and steering clear of wild speculation. And if the helicopter shots of kids fleeing from the school looked remarkably like the type of Columbine footage most area stations stopped airing because too many viewers complained, the main person to blame for that was Morrison, whose actions may have helped trigger a similar incident in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. On October 2, Charles Carl Roberts IV (no relation, thankfully) shot ten girls execution-style in a one-room Amish schoolhouse -- an even unlikelier setting for bloodshed than Platte Canyon.
Locally, the stations' most dubious choices dealt with cutting away to entertainment programming. Channel 9 bailed in time for the 3 p.m. start of Ellen, only to jump back in shortly thereafter, and Channel 4 went to the 4 p.m. Oprah show at what proved to be the worst possible time. Obviously, there was no predicting when the Platte Canyon drama would reach resolution, but in this instance, chat could have waited. Just as suspect was Channel 7's determination to end its 10 p.m. newscast on an upbeat note. When anchor Anne Trujillo had to follow a Platte Canyon wrap-up by narrating video starring Harley, a pet goose that loves flying alongside a motorcyclist, she seemed seconds away from a shame spiral.
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There was worse to come in the succeeding days, with most of the lowest moments contributed by national correspondents such as CBS's Hattie Kauffman. The September 29 Early Show found Kauffman prodding the likes of Tom Mauser, whose son Daniel was slain at Columbine -- but she also spoke with current Columbine students, asking one girl if she could "feel the pain in the hallways." Betcha viewers felt the pain in their living rooms as well.
Of course, the population of reporters like Kauffman has diminished since the news in Pennsylvania broke. Their departure essentially leaves the playing field to hometowners like Rocky columnist Bill Johnson, whose September 29 offering from Bailey, the town nearest the high school, overflowed with the brand of fresh thinking to be expected from a man who's never encountered a cliche he wouldn't embrace. His first line read, "Such a tragic horror is not supposed to happen here."
If only that were true.