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."

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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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