Friday, April 24, 2009

Columbine, I will not forget

Friday, April 16, 1999, was my last day on the job as a reporter for the Jefferson Sentinel newspapers. It had been a great run. Nine years of covering anything and everything that happened in Jefferson County, the huge area that encompasses Denver’s western suburbs. I knew the territory, not just from being on the newspaper staff, but from growing up there.
Little did I know what would happen the following week after I started as a publicist for a Denver public relations firm.
That next Monday, April 19, I learned that I’d be playing an important role in a press conference scheduled Tuesday at the city of Lakewood, one of several municipalities in "Jeffco."
But wouldn’t you know? Monday night my daughter Kira (@pookachino on Twitter) started running a high fever, and as every single parent knows, some times there are no back-up systems.
I called in sick Tuesday, apologizing profusely and hoping I wouldn't get canned before my first paycheck.
While Kira slept on the living room couch, I dozed in my bedroom. Around noon the phone rang, jolting me out of the twilight zone.
It was my sister.
“Why aren’t you at work?” Julie asked.
“Kira got sick. I had to stay home. I’m suppose to be running a press conference at 2 today,” I said.
Before I could get all the words out, Julie said, “That isn’t going to happen. You need to turn on your TV right now.”
Columbine High School was under siege. Shots were fired. Bloodied bodies marred the school grounds. A slaughter was underway.
Julie lived in a neighborhood a mile or two south of the carnage. My niece, her daughter, attended Columbine, but had graduated. Thankfully. Still, Columbine in many ways was very close to home.
I covered the Jefferson County School District, which included Columbine High. I covered the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department, which responded to the shooting. I covered crime and courts and John Stone, the county commissioner turned sheriff. But I would not be covering the story of the century in Jeffco. Instead, I would be a grieving observer just like most everyone else. It still seems like a terrible nightmare.
Now, ten years later I am reading Columbine, a journalist’s account of what really happened before, during and after Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris killed and wounded their classmates and teacher Dave Sanders.
The book is a stunning indictment of how Denver newspapers and television stations latched onto rumor and innuendo, sacrificing truth and journalistic integrity in the process. They carried the national press along wild rapids of speculation and sensationalism. It appears that few, if any, media really questioned the labels and assumptions they had attached hastily to pictures and processes.
Herd mentality is a constant danger for journalists. We need to challenge it every step of the way. Columbine has been an excellent reminder for me to guard against the always tempting rush to judgment.
I’m about halfway through the 417-page book and I’ve learned a lot of stuff I didn’t know before. Sometimes the details are shocking and infuriating.
One aspect of the book I'm not keen on is how much attention is given to the killers. While I appreciate knowing more about these kids and especially their unfairly demonized parents, author Dave Cullen belabors their character oddities. The speculative psychoanalysis, I doubt, is as compelling or accurate as Cullen implies.
Kudos to him, however, for shining a concentrated spotlight on the grave misdeeds of Jeffco government officials, from the sheriff to the district attorney to the county commissioners...all of whom I knew fairly well.
It's sickening to ponder their lies and cover ups. They were unscrupulous public servants who didn't have the guts to come clean.
I'm heading back to the sofa to read the rest of the story, however ugly it might get.
Columbine, I will never forget.

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