Off Limits

Since Westword went to press last Tuesday just as news of the shootings at Columbine High School was beginning to leak out, it wouldn't be fair to criticize how the rest of the media handled the coverage. But then, as last week's tragedy so amply illustrated, life isn't fair.

The good: Of anchors in the field, Channel 9's Adele Arakawa topped her competitors. She was cool and in command despite the chaos (although we could have done without her chirping to Jim Benneman, "Jim, it's possible the gunmen are watching us on television right now!"). Channel 9's Ward Lucas, Channel 7's John Ferrugia and Channel 4's Brian Maass all wound up with interesting information on the shooters' backgrounds. Maass was the first to air the statement issued by the Harris family--which he noted about five times was an exclusive. Channel 9's Paula Woodward had a fine piece on Denver cop Vince Dimanna, a SWAT team member with a child at Columbine. And then there was Channel 4's Kathy Walsh, whose voice actually broke into a sob during one report--a moving testament to the fact that news reporters are human, too.

The bad: Some reporters and outlets appeared to let their own egos--and opportunities for self-promotion--compromise their coverage. Al Verley got fantastic shots of the school grounds--but undercut them by boasting about how the pictures were made possible by the advanced gear on his new helicopter. Channel 4 reporter Paul Day and his cameraman captured the image of a bloodied Patrick Ireland flinging himself from the library window--but later crowed about how he had gained access to an apartment across the street from the school in time for the shot. "I got lucky," he said to the camera--as if the whole thing were about him.

The same goes for Denver Rocky Mountain News publisher Larry Strutton's front-page letter on April 22, in which he usurped the authority of politicians and school district officials by promising that his paper would help build a new high school if that's what people wanted.

The really ugly: Norm Clark's supposed "manifesto" e-mail-from-the-killers scoop disappeared faster than a beer at happy hour. Woody Paige's April 21 "The Day the Flowers Died at Columbine" ignored botany but was plenty florid. Since Colorado's professional sports teams had canceled their games out of respect for the victims, sportswriters had time on their hands--but did they have to use it to pen such fare as this?

"The columbine that was growing alongside the road in Littleton has wilted and died.

It bloomed and blossomed ever-so briefly.
The blue-and-white petals have drooped and turned brown.
From a frost, or maybe out of sadness."

Or maybe because that flower wasn't a columbine at all. Colorado's official state flower doesn't bloom until June.

Meanwhile, back at the raunch: Fortunately, Woody Paige soon returned to his day job--sports, not poetry--and caught up with the media-shy-and-definitely-retiring John Elway on the links of Pebble Beach for an exclusive interview that ran Monday. Erstwhile Post scribe Adam Schefter reportedly had the Elway retirement scoop many days before but had held it, initially in one of those too-cozy deals that shouldn't happen in journalism (Schefter wrote the book--literally--on Terrell Davis and Mike Shanahan), and then because of the Columbine shootings. But after word of Elway's decision leaked to the News, both papers went with the story last Saturday. Because of the continuing Columbine coverage, however, the Elway information that once would have commanded the entire front page received just a demure tease at the bottom, with the major Elway articles consigned to the sports section.

News judgment--at last!

More judgment calls: In addition to reminding journalists what's really news, the Columbine tragedy also chilled all the lawyers--at least for a few days. But now the pundits have ended their brief retirement and are back to blabbing. Believe it or not, these legal eagles are actually guided by "ethical considerations," according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, whose board is currently headed by Colorado's own Larry Pozner. In response to "unprecedented coverage of criminal and legal proceedings that...resulted in an explosion of attorneys serving as legal commentators," last year the group's board adopted three guidelines for attorney yakkers: "a special obligation to educate the public about what it means to be 'liberty's last champions'--our constitutional and ethical responsibilities as advocates for the accused"; "a duty to avoid conflicts of interest with clients and former clients whenever serving as legal commentators"; and "a duty to provide competent commentary."

You be the judge.

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