The lesson on this Columbine anniversary that hit 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.
I previously discussed shortcomings in Newsweek's coverage of Columbine's ten-year anniversary. But they were not the only ones who wrote as if they were unaware of the twists and turns the Columbine story had taken.
Writing in TIME magazine, Lev Grossman's ten-year anniversary story was titled "The Meaning Of Murder." The first line in TIME's big piece tried to reach for news and said of the killers, "They weren't gay."
Grossman doesn't say why that is new, and it's not clear the (false) notion that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were gay ever gained acceptance in the mainstream media. On May 2, 1999, just less than two weeks after the shootings, the Rocky quoted someone who knew the killers with the same words Grossman used: "They were not gay. They did not wear makeup," Dustin Gorton told the paper. "There's so much information coming out about them that just isn't true." Stories on the "basement tapes" made by the killers often note their anti-gay rhetoric, including a TIME magazine story published in 1999.
The next line in TIME magazine's big ten-year piece announces that the killers "weren't part of the Trench Coat Mafia." (Probably true, although long a topic of debate.)
For Grossman "maybe the most surprising thing...is how quickly it all happened." He is in awe that Harris and Klebold ended their lives 49 minutes after the shooting began and "All the murders happened in the first 16 [minutes]." Well, that's the same information released in May 2000 in the sheriff's official version of events.
Yet TIME seems to take a swipe at the media saying that "the stories that have already been told" have to be untold. Now TIME's story can be untold.
Although Grossman is insightful in opining that we should focus on Klebold, not the more fiery Harris: "If there is a lesson here, it lies in Klebold's story, which is the more disturbing because he was, at heart, like us. He was capable of love and sympathy, and he discarded them. Some killers are natural born. Klebold was made."
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Los Angeles Times book editor David Ulin began a review of a Columbine book by saying, "Forget everything you thought you knew." Ulin goes on to herald the revelation that student Cassie Bernall was not shot dead in the library after saying "yes" she believed in God. (Another girl, Valeen Schnurr, did say she believed in God, and after being shot. She survived.) The false Bernall story did go worldwide in the months after Columbine and Bernall's mother wrote the book, She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall.
But five months after the shootings, on Sept. 23, 1999 (yes, 1999), the Denver Post, citing Salon.com, noted "'key investigators' doubt the widely reported story that 17-year-old Cassie Bernall was slain because she told the killers, as a gun was held to her head, that she indeed believed in God." The next day the Rocky ran a story with the headline, "ACCOUNTS DIFFER ON QUESTION TO BERNALL, COLUMBINE SHOOTING VICTIM MAY NOT HAVE BEEN ASKED WHETHER SHE BELIEVED IN GOD." The next month the Washington Post reported, "Cassie probably never said yes, or anything else."
Misinformation early on wasn't necessarily due to sloppy reporting. Ten of the thirteen victims were killed in the library. Investigators needed time to sift through information and correct errors. Despite the many valid criticisms of the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office, it seems to have done an able job in debunking the Bernall myth long before the ten-year.
To be sure, many in the public still seem to have genuinely believed such myths of Columbine. As did journalists. But journalists should proceed on what is known, not their perception.
Yet Ulin chides "the misreporting of the media, which at its worst resembled nothing so much as an enormous game of telephone." He adds that the media "parachuted into Columbine, asked a few questions and then parachuted out." But a simple spot check on the Bernall issue shows the Washington Post, Denver Post and Rocky quickly got it right. The Denver Post and Rocky, meantime, never parachuted in. Then again, they never left. They also filed lawsuits, as did victims families, that freed up valuable information. A Denver Post lawsuit that took four years resulted in the release of nearly 1,000 pages of key writings by the killers and Harris' father.
Ulin (and most other reviewers) never mentions that. Nor do they mention the Denver Post won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news, in the words of the judges, "for its clear and balanced coverage of the student massacre at Columbine High School." (Nor, if that Pulitzer wasn't warranted, do reviewers criticize the Pulitzer judges. Do the reviewers even know about the Columbine Pulitzer?) The Rocky also won a Pulitzer that year for breaking news photography of Columbine.