Hugging the Spotlight: The Media at Columbine

After the school shootings, the people of Littleton didn't mind sharing their grief with reporters. Some even embraced journalists--until media fatigue set in.

Columbine Kids Hugging Columbine Kids Hugging

Brill's Content

By Jessica Seigel, Senior Writer

DAZED and spattered with blood, the girl with the pierced eyebrow stood out amid the chaos. Other students who had just escaped the gun assault at Columbine High School huddled together in weeping clumps. But Bree Pasquale wandered around by herself, sobbing.

One of the few local reporters working the triage area before the national media arrived, KUSA-TV Channel 9 reporter Ginger Delgado approached the girl for an interview. Are you Okay? Bree shook her head no, not really. Well, Delgado said gently, could I ask a few questions? Bree agreed.

girl sobbing

When the camera switched on, the words tumbled out between the girl's whimpering gulps for air: "Then [he] put a gun to my head and said—asked if we all wanted to die," she said. "I just started screaming and crying and telling them not to shoot me." So, Bree said, the shooter turned to another girl. "He shot her in the head in front of me, and he shot the black kid because he was black, and he shot him in the face."

Bree's hysterical voice, distraught expression, and horrifying story stopped hearts across America again and again as KUSA's affiliated networks, CNN and NBC, repeatedly replayed the interview. Such moments helped drive CNN's viewership to a 1999 high on Tuesday, April 20, the day of the attack. Throughout the week that followed, soaring network news audiences also pumped up ratings for school-shooting specials on Dateline NBC and ABC's 20/20. That Thursday night's massacre edition of 48 Hours, which included an interview with Bree, marked the first time the CBS newsmagazine ever beat NBC's ER in the ratings.

While the top-rated hospital series portrays fictional life-and-death drama, the footage beamed from near Littleton, Colorado, was real: terrified students in T-shirts and shorts running with their hands in the air like POWs; a wounded boy teetering from a second-story window; anguished parents waiting to learn if their children were dead or alive.

The camera caught Bree in a state of emotional trauma, but she and her parents didn't object, because they believe the public needed to understand the true depth of horror at Columbine High School. Many others in the Littleton area felt the same, among them Cathy Dice, who was interviewed on TV while she searched in agony for her daughter Jenny. "It was good someone saw me in such a vulnerable moment if that helps this not happen again," says Dice, who later learned that her daughter was alive."I felt like the media was there to support me."

At first, the middle-class suburban community seemed to accept the media pack as part of the emergency response team. Some journalists who had covered similar stories expected to face more hostility from townspeople, but were surprised at the initially warm-ish welcome. "It was bizarre," says KUSA reporter Delgado. "When in your life have you seen so many victims and families come forward so willing to talk?"

Perhaps the sheer number of victims and eyewitnesses explains all the willing interview subjects, considering that 1,900 students attending Columbine potentially saw the murder of 12 students and a teacher. Or maybe students and families simply accepted the axiomatic wisdom of our talk-show culture: Talking heals pain.

More to the point, these sources were teenagers, something that was perhaps easy to forget. In interviews after the first rush of terror, they seemed so self-possessed, looking directly into the cameras, spouting pithy sound bites. Garrulous and gossipy, the teens quickly warmed to the undivided attention of so many adults carrying microphones and pens, devouring their every thought and emotion. Soon the kids learned to query reporters, "Are you national or local?"

A TV Story

The phone at Bree Pasquale's house started ringing with interview requests the day after the shooting. Though some reporters were rude and demanding, 48 Hours staffers asked nicely and snagged Bree's first national TV interview, which aired two nights later.

The Today show also came calling, which is why Bree and her father, Victor, rose before dawn that Friday and headed to the school grounds. It was dark out when they arrived, except for the lights glowing from the cameras of the morning news shows, which were broadcasting from the media encampment in the park next to Columbine High School.

Satellite trucks from as far away as Dallas and Los Angeles crammed the public lot usually filled with students' cars. Dotting nearby grassy areas, open tents protected TV reporters from rain and a spring snowfall when they did their standups; crisscrossing cables tangled the ground. In a disaster such a scene is standard, as are the portable toilets and the Red Cross food truck.

The night before, on Thursday, the sheriff's office had moved its yellow police lines closer to the high school, after clearing the building of bombs left by gunmen Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. And an NBC crew hauled equipment fast, grabbing the best background view—a clear shot of the school's front entrance sign. To the right, a blue portable toilet stood just out of the camera's view.

Under the NBC tarp, her back to the school, Bree sat in a director's chair, staring into the camera and waiting for her Today interview to begin. Two tents down at the ABC interview area, the parents of slain student Dan Rohrbough waited to talk to Good Morning America coanchor Charles Gibson.

The Today segment began by replaying Bree's distraught KUSA interview. Then cohost Katie Couric, speaking from a studio in Washington, D.C., asked questions clearly intended to elicit a graphic blow-by-blow. Bree listened through an earpiece: "What kinds of sounds did you hear, and how did you feel when you heard them?" Couric asked. "They said something particularly callous after they shot Isaiah Shoels. Tell me what they said." Bree described the boy's murder: "…[T]hey shot him at close range with a shotgun, and they're like—Eric was like, ‘Dylan, man, look at his brains. Isn't that awesome how it just splatters across the desk?'" ("Nauseating details," commented David Gregory, guest anchor on CNBC's Rivera Live, after replaying the clip later that night.)

After pumping Bree for the gruesome particulars, Couric sounded especially sympathetic and intimate. "Bree, I can't imagine witnessing and hearing these things and being so terrified," Couric said. "How are you—how are you doing?"

In contrast to her hysterical appearance after escaping the school, Bree's face showed no emotion. "I guess it really hasn't hit me yet," she replied. "It's going to get worse, and unless I keep talking about it and get help and keep going to church, keep going to counseling, it's—it's not going to go away...."

Bree's father, Victor Pasquale, a UPS truck driver, watched from the side, his heart breaking for his daughter. In today's world, he explained, talking to the media is part of tragedy. "What can you say? When something like this happens, we're overwhelmed with curiosity," he offered. "Because it happened to my family, I can't be hypocritical and say, ‘Why are the cameras here?' When it happens everywhere else, I want to know."

The interview over, Bree and her father started to head for the parking lot. By then it was almost light outside. A handful of journalists roving the area trying to procure their own interviews with morning-show guests appeared out of nowhere and converged on Bree.

(Something similar had happened the day before to 16-year-old Sara Schweitzberger after she finished her Today interview. A booker from that show tried to stop a CNN booker from arranging to interview the girl. The argument surprised Sara, who couldn't understand why Today staffers would not want her to speak with others. "This really big thing happened," Sara said. "I thought that should be the least of their concerns." Better for reporters to focus on serious matters like the police investigation, she suggested.)

When reporters came begging for interviews with Bree after her Today appearance, she looked tired, but obliged anyway. First, she gave a few minutes to an Inside Edition crew. She also spoke with a CBS team. Same questions. Same answers. Her tone grew increasingly remote and rehearsed.

When a reporter from the Spanish-language Univision Television Network showed up, Bree had had enough. "It's hard," she later explained. "I've said the same thing thirty times." Pleeease, the reporter begged. "I'm sorry," Bree said sweetly, looking like she might give in, then said firmly, "I'm sorry." A look of anger flashed momentarily across the reporter's face, but he went away quietly. Looking wilted, Bree and her father left the scene.

In Media City

By mid-morning Thursday, the media encampment resembled a street fair, with a different act in each corner. About every two hours under a central tarp to the north, the press corps gathered for the sheriff's investigation update. Meanwhile, photographers and reporters circled red-eyed mourners flocking to a makeshift memorial that snaked through the park around the media camp. As days passed, remembrances and offerings of cut flowers, stuffed animals, votive candles, handcrafted posters, placards, and cards piled higher and higher. The spontaneous memorial was remarkable for its magnitude and because it made the media's job much easier. Seeking interviews during such tragedies is generally loathsome; locals often view packs of journalists as vultures and try to avoid them. This time, because the memorial was taking shape in the heart of the media camp, the townsfolk ended up coming right to the reporters.

The two groups did not always mix comfortably. Some teens lashed out at hovering reporters and photographers, complaining that the park had been their hangout long before the media horde moved in. "You guys are exploiting us," one teary girl screeched at a cameraman who stood a foot from her face. So why didn't the kids leave? "This is where it happened," explained Lauren Beachem, 16. "This is where I want to be."

Still, starting with the dozens of Columbine students who telephoned KUSA the day of the siege, many kids couldn't stop talking. One group even began hanging out in a CNN van once word spread that the twenty-something staffers were sympathetic listeners—with free sodas. "I like them 'cause they're nice," said Bae Gattoni, 15, a soft-spoken girl who looked like a lost kitten curled up on a seat in the van.

In the days after the shooting, teens like 16-year-old Ben Oakley clung to friends in packs, generally avoiding their parents in the belief that Mom and Pop couldn't understand or handle their trauma. Journalists, on the other hand, made for a willing audience.

On Thursday morning, two days after the shooting, as a sheriff's press briefing began a few feet away, Ben attracted a circle of reporters, including representatives from Fox News, USA Today, a local NBC station, and the Chicago Tribune. Lured by the crowd, more journalists piled on. "Who is this kid? What is his name?" a Los Angeles Daily News reporter asked, joining the pack around the gangly boy with the chapped lips.

Newly arrived reporters repeated the same questions: Where were you during the attack? (Math class.) How are you coping? (Hasn't hit yet.) Did you know either gunman? On that much-asked point, Ben offered that members of the killers' clique, the Trenchcoat Mafia, had acted "weird," a comment quoted in The Dallas Morning News. More tantalizing was Ben's revelation that the two killers had created a video in which they enacted a shooting spree.

An Entertainment Tonight reporter gripping a microphone leaned closer. "Ben," she asked, "how can we get ahold of the video?" Ben never said, but the Chicago Tribune reported that he confirmed the video's existence in an article headlined "Massacre Rehearsal? Teens' Video Portrayed School Killings." The race was on to find the tape. (Inside Edition found a different shooting video made by Columbine students, one that was two years old and that didn't include Harris and Klebold, and aired it on May 5. No one ever found the video that Ben mentioned.) Some journalists felt ambivalent about the question-and-answer dance with students. "I'm surprised some of these kids want to talk," said Alicia Acuña, a Fox News producer, as she broke from the pack surrounding Ben. "Sometimes it's hard to listen. You're torn between wondering if it's best for them to talk and doing your job. There's a certain type of exploitation."

In one case, the joke was on reporters. A certain "Mike Smith," who claimed to be a point guard for the Columbine basketball team, regaled journalists at the park with vivid accounts of how school officials ignored the hostility between the trench coat clique and bullying jocks who taunted the outcasts as "gays" and "inbreeds." The Philadelphia Inquirer and USA Today prominently quoted "Smith." Then, the Drudge Report and Rivera Live quoted Smith being quoted.

Inquirer national correspondent Richard Jones learned that "Mike Smith" does not play point guard for Columbine from a Denver Rocky Mountain News reporter, whose son actually had played that position. In fact, no one named "Mike Smith" was enrolled at Columbine High School. "It was your worst nightmare," says Jones. "The story had the ring of truth. You don't think someone would lie to see their name in the paper."

Instead of printing a separate correction, the Inquirer buried a paragraph in its next-day story that read: "One teenager apparently tried to mislead reporters, identifying himself to the Inquirer, USA Today and a Colorado paper as Mike Smith..." After a query from Brill's Content brought the error to USA Today's attention, the paper printed a separate page-three correction branding "Mike Smith" an impostor, but did not address the substance of his quotes.

Because "Mike Smith"'s account was so juicy, at least one news organization went to great lengths to locate him. A Dateline associate producer huddled curbside one night under an umbrella in the cold, asking teenagers entering and leaving the park, "Do you know Mike Smith? Do you know Mike Smith?" She never did find him.

A Warmer Reception

For journalists, the Columbine massacre was literally a walk in the (muddy) park compared to past school shootings. A year earlier, in rural Jonesboro, Arkansas, irate locals threw rocks at reporters. As the worst school shooting in U.S. history, the assault near Littleton attracted a much larger media flock than Jonesboro had, drawing reporters from as far away as Israel and Australia. While the influx overwhelmed rural Jonesboro, the sprawling suburbs south of Denver easily absorbed the crowds.

Suburban affluence in a community where locals and journalists share similar demographics only partially explained the warm reception. "Journalists here seem to be on better behavior," said CNN field anchor Martin Savidge; others who covered both stories agreed. The change wasn't accidental. A staff memo from CNN chairman Tom Johnson taped to the inside of one van quoted post-Jonesboro recommendations of a media industry group, The Freedom Forum, while admonishing staffers to avoid excesses like front-lawn stakeouts and sticking microphones in the faces of grieving families.

Whether the community was more open or the journalists better behaved, the locals at times seemed to go out of their way to make the media feel at home. Mourners who gathered at the Foothills Bible Church to remember 16-year-old John Tomlin welcomed reporters inside. Some journalists at first felt abashed clopping around a church in their foul-weather gear. The parishioners seemed not to notice. "This is God's family," explained congregant Bill Brown, clutching his Bible. "Journalists are people, too."

During the service, senior pastor Bill Oudemolen suggested the same. "Think about all the good this week," the pastor said, "brave and protective teachers, courageous law enforcement officers, skilled medical technicians and doctors" and a host of others, including "sensitive news reporters." David Li, a New York Post reporter, was genuinely moved: "I wrote it down because I've never seen those two words together—sensitive and journalist."

After the service, the grieving Tomlins remained seated in the sanctuary to answer questions from about a dozen reporters who sat on the altar steps. It was a gentle, 15-minute affair—journalists asked about the family's background, their lost son, and their feelings. As the Tomlins headed out of the sanctuary, a People magazine correspondent caught up with the black-clad mourners. "I lost a brother when he was twenty-one," he volunteered. "I'm so sorry for your loss." When the dead boy's father, John Tomlin, offered comfort with a one-handed hug to the shoulder, the reporter slipped in, "Maybe we can talk tomorrow?" The reporter, who did not want his name used, explained, "I offered condolences," and added, "I was a reporter. I was on a job. He and I hit it off. We were talking about many things before I said that."

Waiting was not necessary. Journalists were invited to join the modest church-room luncheon of tuna fish and turkey sandwiches. It was the first time Tomlin had ever dealt with reporters. "They've been great," he said, deploying his comforting hand-on-your-shoulder grip. "I don't want you to write anything bad about the press," he insisted, saying journalists had been kind to his family.

In a Gallup poll taken a week after the shootings, 67 percent of the people surveyed agreed that the media acted responsibly. On the other hand, opinion split about whether the amount of coverage was "too much" or "about right."

Week Two

As the story moved into the second week, it turned away from basic facts to the search for "understanding" and blame. Unwilling to entertain the idea that some acts may be impossible to explain, journalists wrote aftermath stories that pointed fingers at supposedly bad parents, cliquish students, ignorant school administrators, and do-nothing police. News-analysis stories wondered about the pernicious influence of the Internet, video games, violent movies, and about the prevalence of guns.

All along, TV and radio talking heads had been encouraging the community to find "meaning in the sadness," as one Los Angeles TV reporter put it on the air. Tensions between "experts" and regular folk erupted in an emotional off-camera scene at The Montel Williams Show after a taping in the New York studio. As eight Columbine students and their families waited backstage, the show's consulting psychologist, kept on hand to soothe distraught guests, offered advice that struck some of them as accusatory. "She said something like, ‘Kids have to take responsibility,'" recalls Johnny Norman, who was there with his son. "I think the kids thought she was saying that they were responsible."

Students began to cry. Parents shouted. Finally, Williams appeared, apologized, and diffused tempers by offering to treat his guests to a night on the town, according to accounts from six parents and students who were present. Williams refused comment, except for a brief fax from his spokesman, Gary Rosen, apologizing for "any perceived miscommunication with any of the guests on the Columbine show." The consulting psychologist did not respond to phone calls.

As preachy advice and aftermath reporting continued unabated, the media wore out its welcome—perhaps an inevitable ending in an era when people's emotions are commodities for round-the-clock news.

Finally, an act of God intervened. The national media unclenched from the story when twisters swept through Oklahoma on May 3. The storms eventually left 44 people dead. Two nights later, not a single satellite truck was left in the makeshift memorial park near Columbine High.

"You knew they would leave when the next tragedy hit," says Steve Schweitzberger, whose 16-year-old, Sara, appeared on the Today show, CNN, CNBC, and in The New York Times discussing the shooting. But the eye of the Littleton storm had passed—and Sara and her father were watching another one on TV. A news flash on the Oklahoma twisters beamed on screen: "3,000 homeless." "Oh, how sad," said Sara, a news junkie who dreams of working as a sportscaster. "Yeah," her father muttered. "At least now we're off the national news."

July/August 1999