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Columbine and the End of Journalism: A Daily Blog Series, Part III

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The lesson on this Columbine anniversary that hits April 20 may not come from the shootings themselves. But rather, how the media has covered the shootings since the ten-year anniversary last year.

While journalists are often treated as jacks-of-all-trades - able to cover a transportation board meeting or school shooting on a moment's notice - that is not always true for book reviewers. World War II experts might be expected to review tomes on World War II; war correspondents review books on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; accomplished writers review books by other accomplished writers. But most mainstream publications appear to have made a fatal error in assigning people who knew next to nothing about Columbine to dissect a multifaceted psychological and sociological problem bound up by tens of thousands of documents and ten years of reporting.

Newsweek couched a big ten-year anniversary story as an essay titled "The Columbine Generation" and handed it to someone who was 16 years old and in high school at the time of the shootings. That's OK for an essay truly on "The Columbine Generation," but not a review of the Columbine shootings. The equivalent would be assigning someone to review a major book on World War II simply because they were in high school at the time.

"As obvious as it sounds now, the guys wanted to kill as many people as they could-many more than the 13 who died," Newsweek writer Ramin Setoodeh wrote as he tried to deliver some news ten years later. "They planted bombs and duffel bags placed strategically in the cafeteria." Indeed, that information was widely released within days of the shootings. The April 23, 1999 Rocky Mountain News - three days after Columbine - was typical in reporting that propane bombs had been found in the school and quoted then Colorado Gov. Bill Owens as saying, "The killers planned to destroy this entire school, and they failed."

"[Eric] Harris and [Dylan] Klebold were only vaguely associated with the 'Trench Coat Mafia,' a clique of outsiders," Setoodeh wrote. His words are surprisingly close to a story in the Rocky:

Eric and Dylan gravitated toward a small circle of students united by their differences. Combat boots and thrift-store grunge adrift in an Abercrombie & Fitch sea. This angry, rebellious group would become known as the Trench Coat Mafia.

Even then, Dylan and Eric were on the fringes of the outcast clique.

Except the Rocky printed those words on August 22, 1999, four months after Columbine - when Setoodeh was still in his high school years. In Newsweek Setoodeh wasn't reporting anything new. He was repeating information that was 10 years old.

"The Columbine killers were a strange and deeply disturbed pair, right out of a Truman Capote book" Setoodeh opined. He probably meant one nonfiction book in particular - In Cold Blood.

But New York Times book critic Janet Maslin adroitly noted that Capote also wrote a novel hinged on romance.

"Which [book]?" she asked of Setoodeh's article. "Breakfast at Tiffany's?"

Sidebar: In the midst of writing this blog series I recalled a letter written by Hunter S. Thompson, who I knew for five years and who blurbed the back of my book. Thompson's first book of collected letters, The Proud Highway, includes a 1963 letter he wrote from Rio de Janeiro to Newsweek publisher Phil Graham. The letter gives pause to anyone who thinks Newsweek just recently turned the corner from stalwart journalism to cub reporting.

"Newsweek, a fat-wallet book that criticizes other people for rehashing the news, is represented here [in Rio] by a virtually unpaid British stringer whose stories are published with all the tack-sharp regularity of total eclipses of the sun," Thompson wrote.

Thompson continued: "Newsweek's last story on Brazil, in fact, was held up by the Rio press corps as a hideous example of what happens when Latin America is covered from Madison Avenue. It was so full of stupid mistakes that, frankly, it was hard to believe that it was meant to be fact, instead of fiction."