Shots were heard round the world when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed twelve fellow students and a teacher at Columbine High School before turning the guns on themselves on April 20, 1999.
Almost 13 years later, Illinois gets to vote on a legacy of the world's most iconic school shooting, and I urge them to get it right.
I was one of the first reporters on scene on April 20, 1999 and covered the shootings as a staff writer at the now defunct Denver Rocky Mountain News. My colleagues and I broke major stories: the 911 tapes, the diversion files of the killers, and leaked crime scene photos. I wrote about the shootings for national publications including the Boston Globe, US News & World Report, and the Chicago Tribune. On the 10-year anniversary of the shootings my definitive book was published: Columbine: A True Crime Story (Ghost Road Press).
Another book, Columbine, by blogger Dave Cullen, is now in the running for the Illinois School Media Library Association Abraham Lincoln Award. The Lincoln is given "annually to the author of the book voted as most outstanding by participating students in grades nine through twelve in Illinois. The award is named for Abraham Lincoln, one of Illinois' most famous residents and himself an avid reader and noted author," according to the ISMLA Website. The award "is designed to encourage high school students to read for personal satisfaction and become familiar with authors of young adult and adult books." Past winners have included Twilight by Stephanie Meyer (2008) and A Child Called "It" by Dave Pelzer (2005). The Lincoln award will be announced in March, one month shy of Columbine's 13th anniversary.
Columbine, in many places, is a good attempt. But it has far too many serious shortcomings to be considered by ISMLA.
The nation's most trusted media outlets may have misled ISMLA -- and the rest of the country. Frank Rich, arguably the New York Times' most prominent columnist when Cullen's Columbine was also released on the 10-year anniversary, wrote, "Dave Cullen reaffirms Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were instead ordinary American teenagers who worked at the local pizza joint, loved their parents and were popular among their classmates." Aside from the shootings themselves, there are plenty of examples that the alleged bonhomie was not reciprocated. "You people could have shown more respect, treated me better, asked for knowledge or guidence [sic] more, treated me more like a senior and maybe I wouldn't have been so ready to tear your [expletive] heads off," Harris wrote a few months before the shootings in a typical diary entry.
(In another story New York Times literary critic Janet Maslin wrote, "Mr. Kass, whose tough account is made even sadder by the demise of the Rocky Mountain News in which his Columbine coverage appeared, has also delivered an intensive Columbine overview. Some of the issues he raises and information he digs up go unnoticed by Mr. Cullen.")
Los Angeles Times book editor David Ulin reviewed Columbine and heralded the supposed revelation that student Cassie Bernall was not shot dead in the library after saying "yes" she believed in God. The false Bernall story did quickly travel worldwide after Columbine.
But five months after the shootings, the media dissected the Bernall myth once police investigators themselves sorted through events. ("Cassie probably never said yes, or anything else," the Washington Post reported in September 1999.)
Many reviews of Columbine were not just faulty. Among the most egregious errors in the book itself is portraying the killers as normal teens accepted into the student body, and Harris as among the most popular (at least with the girls). The killers' alienation, however, was one of their greatest motivators. Five days before the shootings, a recruiter made clear to Harris and his family he could not join the Marines, at least while he was on the psychotropic drug Luvox. Cullen claims it never happened. Cullen attributes thoughts to the killers -- implying that Klebold lost his nerve during the shooting and was in general nothing more than a blameless lackey. Yet both killers share equally.
It's horrible that the nation's major media outlets could not bring accurate analysis to reviewing one of the nation's major social issues. But the librarians at ISMLA -- and its voters -- should be a backstop to such media shortcomings and not vote Columbine.