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Columbine and the End of Journalism, Part IX: Oprah

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For proof of the widespread interest in Columbine's ten-year anniversary last April 20, look to the biggest name in book publishing: Oprah.

She had planned a show the day of the anniversary titled "10 Years Later: The Truth About Columbine." As I have discussed in this series of blogs, many Columbine "myths" were actually debunked years ago (aside from the new ones that cropped up on the ten-year). A trailer for Oprah show touts diaries of shooter Eric Harris (released years earlier) and how a parent complained a year before the shootings (probably the story of Randy Brown, known within days of the shootings). The only topic mentioned in the trailer that might have benefited from some fresh discussion was whether the shooters were bullied. An Oprah spokeswoman did not elaborate on what new information would come out on the show.

This segment wasn't a big deal just because Oprah can sell books like nobody's business. The ten-year was special. As I have written, coverage of that anniversary seems eclipsed only by coverage of the shootings themselves. Oprah's segment had to be just right.

But Oprah canceled the show as it was set to air. "After reviewing it, I thought it focused too much on the killers," she said. "Today, hold a thought for the Columbine community. This is a hard day for them."

In Denver's alternative weekly, Westword, Michael Roberts chronicled the cancellation as it occurred, "The Winfrey comment suggests that there's more to the story -- and there is."

But the question, arguably, remains whether the show was canceled due to community outcry, a misguided segment, or both.

Opposition to the segment from two of the most well-known Columbine community members, Brian Rohrbough and Randy Brown, centered on the show's guests. Rohrbough heard about the show when an Oprah producer called him asking for photos of his son, Dan, who was killed at Columbine. The photos were to be used for the anniversary segment. Rohrbough, who had been on the show before, learned that Columbine author Dave Cullen, lead Columbine investigator Kate Battan, and FBI Columbine investigator (and psychologist) Dwayne Fuselier were among the guests. (Disclosure: An Oprah producer called me and we talked about my Columbine book, but I guess I didn't make the final cut.)

Rohrbough, who has been among the fiercest critics of the troubled Columbine investigation, said he would like to go on the show to rebut those guests. Investigative omissions by the Jefferson County Sheriff, for example, are well documented, and Rohrbough was bothered that the views of all three guests might go unchallenged. Brown sees Fuselier as part of the investigation and therefore part of the problem. He also believes Fuselier had a conflict of interest because two of his sons attended Columbine (one graduated before the shootings).

The Brown family now famously reported Harris and fellow shooter Dylan Klebold, multiple times to the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office in the years leading up to the killings. The sheriff's office did draw up a draft affidavit for a search warrant for Harris's home, but never took it before a judge, and never acknowledged that until they were sued after the shootings. The sheriff thanked the Browns for their pre-Columbine vigilance by trying to refute their story and question whether their son Brooks Brown had prior knowledge of the shootings.

In the lead-up to the ten-year anniversary, Brown was also talking to an Oprah producer. "You're going to hurt the [Columbine] families," he said of the lineup. "Why are you doing this? This is the anniversary."

The call ended up lasting maybe 40 minutes. In the end, Brown thinks Oprah listened. But he doesn't think he himself stopped the show. "No one tells Oprah what to do," he emphasizes.

The Denver Post at the time reported that Columbine principal Frank DeAngelis, who was also to appear, ended up opposing the show because it "was glorifying the two killers."

Fuselier says an Oprah producer also told him on Saturday -- two days before the show was to air -- that it was being dropped. Fuselier did not disagree that the segment "focused too much" on the killers, but had also prepared an article on ways for parents to talk with their children.

Fuselier says that if critics have an issue with the Columbine investigation, they are "painting with a pretty broad brush" to include all the FBI too. Fuselier even recalls an instance where Brown gave him information that led to the successful prosecution of a post-Columbine threat. (Brown remembers talking to Fuselier, but on a different post-Columbine case.)

Spokeswoman Angela DePaul also has an answer as to whether anyone influenced Oprah.
"It was Ms. Winfrey's sole decision to pull the show," she says, and cleared up a somewhat open question when she added, "and there are no plans to air it in the future."

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