Back-to-School Special

It was 4:45 a.m. Monday, August 16 -- the day students came back to Columbine High School for the first time since April 20, when twelve students and a teacher were murdered there -- and while the campus was blessedly peaceful, it wasn't silent. The building itself was aglow as a street sweeper motored across an adjacent parking lot, rounding up every scrap of unsightly rubbish. Squeaky-voiced Jefferson County School District spokesman Rick Kaufman was also on hand, doing a last-minute inspection from the driver's seat of a sputtering golf cart. His transport was unmarked, but the carts driven by workmen barricading off an entrance to close-by Clement Park were emblazoned with "Guest Relations." The national media had just returned to the area with the largest force in months. Wouldn't want the press to feel unwelcome.

If this level of accommodation seems surprising, it shouldn't be. Jeffco schools personnel had figured that local and national journalists would show up en masse for Columbine's fall kickoff, and they were right. A five-minute stroll from the entrance was a "bullpen" that featured eleven satellite trucks, a slew of supporting vehicles vomiting multi-hued cables from their rear hatches, so much artificial light that the encampment might well have been visible from outer space, and dozens of crew members and on-air talent types operating under or near a series of white-peaked tents that resembled a mini-Denver International Airport. To keep this horde happy, school officials had devised a plan they hoped would protect students, parents and faculty from the brand of pestering that has been part of their lives for the past four months, even as it provided visuals that made everyone involved look good. But the result was yet another made-for-TV event in a tragedy whose coverage seems to be getting worse and even more formulaic as time goes by. With revelations in desperately short supply, there's little left but exploitation -- and that doesn't figure to change anytime soon.

News outlets in Colorado and beyond have exerted a great deal of effort to keep the Columbine story alive, and understandably so: With so many hours of airtime or pages of newsprint to fill, having an old reliable available is a tremendous convenience. Examples of this strategy abounded on television in the weeks leading up to the first day of school. CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox and CNN made a habit of including Columbine-related packages in their primary newscasts, thereby giving editors more opportunities to replay videotape of a bloodied Patrick Ireland toppling out of the library window and/or helicopter shots of terrified students fleeing the building on the day of the killings. (This footage was also trotted out in connection with other shooting incidents, including this month's assault on a Jewish community center in suburban Los Angeles.) Predictably, many of these reports were every bit as superficial and superfluous as the Jim Avila piece that appeared on the August 15 edition of the NBC Nightly News. Columbine parents had announced that they would form a human chain along Pierce Street in front of the school on the morning of its reopening in order to protect students from the prying eyes of the media, but Avila, in a blatant and ridiculous use of spin, characterized it instead as a "cocoon of support."

Such Orwellian language tricks are typical of NBC's chosen way of telling this particular tale. The network has arguably gotten more favorable notices from Columbine than any other major news organization, thanks mainly to Today anchor Katie Couric's memorable, nakedly emotional interview with Michael Shoels, the stepfather of shooting victim Isaiah Shoels, and Craig Scott, the brother of the late Rachel Scott. But when Couric complained on-air last week that she feels uncomfortable letting her children watch the news because it's so bloody nowadays, her words couldn't disguise the fact that NBC's programming places more focus on carnage than any of its competitors. Why? Because it must feed two cable networks, MSNBC and CNBC, as well as the multi-night Dateline newsmagazine -- and a story that can be dragged out indefinitely, like Columbine or the investigation into the death of JonBenét Ramsey, aids this cause immeasurably. Clearly, NBC personnel understand that such a tack can be double-edged, and they try to blunt it with overt expressions of sensitivity. For instance, on the August 15 edition of Sunday Today, Soledad O'Brien noted sympathetically that many people in Littleton wished the media would back off from Columbine and allow them to get on with their lives. But after nodding in agreement, co-host Jack Ford claimed that people in the rest of the country were deeply interested in the topic and deserved to be kept informed. In other words, we understand, but we're not going to leave you alone.

The major Denver TV stations have been playing this same game for months, to similarly distasteful effect. In the weeks leading up to August 16, everything from an art show by Columbine students to counter-terrorist exercises by a local law-enforcement agency was deemed a dandy excuse to dish out more post-shootings angst. Among the guiltiest in this regard was KCNC-TV/Channel 4, which endlessly previewed an August 15 special dubbed Reclaiming Columbine -- -and didn't let an opportunity pass to remind viewers that they could expect "full coverage" of the students' return on Channel 4, which seemed less a promise than a threat. But KMGH-TV/Channel 7 and KWGN-TV/Channel 2 have regularly engaged in excess, too, and KUSA-TV/Channel 9 leads the pack when it comes to elaborate graphics and other show-bizzy affectations that threaten to turn what is a very real, very painful, very personal story for so many Coloradans into mere entertainment.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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