Tale of the Tapes
Susan Goldstein

Tale of the Tapes

Those locals praying that coverage of Columbine High School would diminish following the first anniversary of the shootings didn't have to wait long to be disappointed. Last week, only six days after the modestly attended commemorative festivities ("Anniversary Post-Mortem," April 27), Jefferson County Attorney Frank Hutfless ordered that a Columbine tape including an alleged "training video" assembled by the Littleton Fire Department be made available to the general public for $25 a pop. Jeffco officials swear they're not making a profit on the sale, but some people aren't convinced. After all, copies of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace can be had for about ten bucks less despite the high cost of light sabers -- not to mention Jar Jar Binks.

The tape is dominated by over three hours of footage shot from Channel 4's helicopter as it swooped over the school last year on April 20; included are images of victims such as Richard Castaldo, who survived, and Rachel Scott, who did not, being dragged from the building. But considerably more unexpected are training sequences recorded by a Littleton firefighter after the assault in the school's library and other parts of the facility that some brainiac decided to set to a trio of pop songs: "Friend of Mine (Columbine)," performed by Columbine students Jonathan and Stephen Cohen; "I Will Remember You," by Canadian songbird Sarah McLachlan; and "If It Were Up to Me," folkie Cheryl Wheeler's anti-gun protest ditty.

Two days after the tapes went on sale to the public, Jeffco attorney Hutfless ordered that the soundtrack, reportedly put in place as a "tribute" to those who lost their lives, be removed because of litigation threats from McLachlan and Wheeler, immediately turning the hundred or so music-enhanced units purchased into collector's items. (On May 1, more than twenty copies were available on eBay.) That's unfortunate, because the effect of watching them as originally packaged is so monumentally bizarre that it inspires something close to awe, or at least disbelief. Even if Littleton Fire Department officials were certain that the segments could never reach the general public -- and to make this assumption in such a high-profile case would have been staggeringly naive, particularly since they were showing their "training video" around the country -- it's tough to understand how anyone with a fully functioning brain stem could have thought it was a good idea.

This alone gives the Jeffco release news value, but since a number of the images on the video are more than a little distasteful, media outlets had to decide how best to present them. Most national outfits opted for a somewhat sanitized methodology: Even MSNBC, which lives off Columbine-type tragedies, stayed away from the body- dragging and library visuals that showed pools of blood next to paper markers denoting which of the slain had been found beside them.

Yet MSNBC's approach was quite bold compared with the ones taken by local news operations -- especially Channel 4, which didn't air anything from the tape at all and went so far as to warn viewers on April 26 that CBS's Dan Rather-helmed national news program was planning to do so. "We wanted people to be able to make an educated decision about whether to watch or not," says Angie Kucharski, Channel 4's news director. She adds, "We didn't air any of the video because none of the information on it advanced anything that we were currently reporting."

Media columnists such as the Denver Post's Joanne Ostrow praised Channel 4 and other local affiliates for their "restraint" in this matter -- but the concurrent decision of the Post, the Rocky Mountain News and Channel 2 to put portions of the tape on their Web sites (they were removed after Hutfless's announcement) raises legitimate questions about who, if anyone, benefited from such moderation. If the content of the tape wasn't newsworthy, what was the justification for putting samples on the Internet (beyond increasing hits on the sites)? Conversely, if it was newsworthy, did Denver stations shortchange viewers by not letting them see snippets for themselves? And are affiliates whose ostensible job is to tell about the events of the day -- whether good, bad or ugly -- now shying away from reporting anything too unpleasant for fear of offending someone?

Many Columbine parents have been plenty offended by coverage of the shootings and their aftermath, and they're using their bully pulpits to change it. In this regard, they've received frequent assists from Jefferson County Public Schools, which recently put out a press release about the Littleton Fire offering that stated, "We believe that showing the images on the videotape continues to traumatize the victims of the tragedy and works against the school district's efforts over the last year to support healing."

But unexpectedly blunt comments buried in "The Non-Training Videotape," an April 28 News editorial, suggest that some members of the media believe Columbine parents have taken things too far. In the piece, which argued that Jefferson County made the right choice when it released the tape to the public, its anonymous author wrote, "Frankly, Columbine families should stop acting as if they expect to dictate which images of that tragedy survive in the public domain and in popular consciousness...Those families should stop worrying so much about what the public sees and whether it will somehow diminish the memory of their loved ones. The short answer is that it won't; the longer answer is that there is nothing they can do even if the short answer is wrong."

These words might have meant more if the News hadn't compromised its own coverage by bending to the very sorts of pressures the editorial rejects. Specifically, an excerpt from the training video was placed on the RockyMountainNews.com Web site. But an "editor's note" told sensitive surfers that "music and audio, which accompanied the original video, has been removed to reflect the concerns of the victims' families."

This capitulation was particularly damaging given the importance of the music to the issue as a whole. Not only did McLachlan and Wheeler immediately send cease-and-desist letters to Jeffco because of its unauthorized use of their work (obviously, the staffers at Littleton Fire didn't think of that, either), but the juxtaposition of the tunes with the images was central to the parents' complaints about the production. By removing the music, then, the News prevented visitors to the site from considering information that was vital to any understanding of the story.

How does News editor John Temple respond to this assertion? He didn't return a call from Westword, bringing the total number that he's ignored over the past six months to around a dozen. (At this point, I wouldn't expect him to get back to me if I told his assistant I was on fire -- but I keep phoning in the hope that seeing my name on a message gives him a moment's annoyance.)

In contrast with the News, the Post demonstrated considerably more editorial judgment in the way it placed video samples on its Web site, DenverPost.com. (They appeared courtesy of Channel 2, which had the identical selections on its own site, WB2.com.) While a note pointed out that "the copyright holders of some of the music heard over the clips have stated that the music was used by the video makers without authorization," the songs were left in place because, as Post editor Glenn Guzzo says, "the music had become part of the story." Viewing the passages using the RealPlayer system definitely upped their creepiness quotient; the images appeared as still frames dissolving into one another, further heightening the impression that an editor cut the footage to the beat. For this reason, Guzzo was glad it wasn't all that easy to locate. In his words, interested parties had "to go digging for it to find it."

Steve Grund, Channel 2's news director, subscribed to this same line of reasoning. In planning for the coverage of Columbine's first anniversary, he says he decided "not to show any file tape of the incident that might take the story backward." When the training video was released, he adds, "I would have felt like a hypocrite if we hadn't continued with what we'd done the week before. I didn't want to run anything that would set the community backward, be it violence, blood or turmoil." He denies that by doing so, he was engaging in benign censorship. "I wasn't blocking news as much as I was searching for it," he insists. "And graphic violence isn't it."

For the Web, though, Grund sees a different standard. "As an over-the-air broadcaster, we've been in the market since 1952 and we're wired into every home. Our news has to be a reflection of the community, so we're going to craft our storytelling, writing the beginnings and the middles and the ends. But with the Web, you have to drive yourself there. It's a place for you to go where you can see things that aren't edited or crafted. All we were saying with the video is, 'Here it is.'

"I wasn't trying to promote the Web site by doing this," he asserts. "That didn't even cross my mind. It's just a matter of understanding and delineating between the products people have available in this wired world."

Brian Rohrbough, father of slain student Daniel Rohrbough, doesn't buy that argument. By putting the video on the Internet, he says, "they're bridging the gap between news and entertainment." But others in his situation apparently feel that disseminating the tape has some value. ABC's Good Morning America got its copy a day before any of its rivals, having received it from a Columbine parent; last week, Rohrbough said he didn't know who'd provided it but was trying to find out "because I'm extremely angry about it."

Channel 7, a previous target of Rohrbough's wrath ("The ESPNing of America," April 13), strove for a middle ground on the training video; news director Diane Mulligan took stills (although none from the library or cafeteria) and ran them with the original music to give observers a sense of the controversy. This softer slant may not have been acceptable to the networks, she explains, but it made sense given the array of news options available these days.

"I think that viewers in town know that when they watch a Denver newscast, they're going to get a fairly mild representation of the Columbine story, because we live here, too," Mulligan says. "On the national news, decisions are going to be made without as much compassion because they don't live here, and the Internet is a free-for-all. So the viewers are learning that there are different places they can go to see what they want, and that local stations are going to make decisions keeping the local community in mind.

"Maybe this story is going to be a watershed for all of us," she continues, "but I've agonized over it more than anything I've done in my career. The other day in the newsroom, when this was breaking, I told someone, 'I don't ever want to make another Columbine decision the rest of my life.' But the next day, there was another one. And another. And another."

Not long ago, Post scribe Chuck Green announced that he was sick of writing about the JonBenét Ramsey murder, and while his resolve initially seemed weak (mere days after penning those words, he was back on the subject again), he may actually mean it this time. Last week, the dead girls' parents, John and Patsy Ramsey, undid many of the public-relations successes achieved during their recent press blitz ("The John and Patsy Show," March 23) by weaseling out of taking a lie-detector test. But rather than hammering at this development in his April 28 column, Green offered "An Expert at Filling This Space," a column that was either a badly failed attempt at humor or a tortured cry for help.

As nearly as I can tell, the piece is about those times when the ideas stop flowing -- and for Green, that time has clearly come. Consider the following:

"If you think it is difficult to read this stuff, you need to appreciate how hard it is to write it."

"At least you, dear reader, might understand how difficult it is for the writers at this newspaper to win a Pulitzer Prize, since it is a miracle that we can even type our stories on this nsfg syswion [sic]."

"OK, I'm back. I have another three miserable inches to write."

If this is the best you can come up with, Chuck, go ahead and blab about JonBenét again. Because those three inches really were miserable.

The latest report from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, issued May 1 for the six-month period ending March 31, shows Green's paper growing more slowly than its rival. The News's numbers went up by almost 90,000 copies in both the daily and Sunday categories as opposed to the Post's 43,000 daily increase and 35,000 Sunday boost. In "Record Gains Reported in Post Circulation," its spin-happy article on the report, the Post attempted to belittle the News's accomplishment by noting that it's practically giving away its paper via bargain subscriptions, even though the Post intermittently engages in nearly identical practices. As for the News's counterpart piece, "News Outgains Post Again, Becomes State's Largest Newspaper," it contains a quote from industry analyst James Marsh -- "The News needs to demonstrate to investors that it can convert those numbers into profits" -- that suggests these gains have come at the cost of an ocean of red ink.

Meanwhile, there continue to be doubts about whether anyone is actually reading all these extra papers. Both circulation departments regularly charge each other with dumping copies, and reports from Boulder suggest that many students at the University of Colorado who signed up for cheap subscriptions don't even bother to pick the damn things up, creating an unsightly mess all over the campus.

Is it news or is it litter? You be the judge.

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


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