The Strangely Passive Locals

'60 Minutes II' picks up, runs with Columbine Story that local newspapers, TV outlets fumbled

By Dave Kopel. More by Kopel on Columbine.

Rocky Mountain News, April 22, 2001

On Tuesday, 60 Minutes II ran a major program breaking new information about Columbine - such as the fact that in the spring of 1998, the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department had prepared an affidavit to ask for a search warrant for the home of Eric Harris. The affidavit was based on Harris' published death threats on the World Wide Web, and on the discovery - in a park a mile and a half from Harris' home - of bombs like the ones that Harris bragged about making. 60Minutes II uncovered the affidavit by using Colorado's Open Records Act.

Why did Coloradans have to wait for 60 Minutes to pry this information loose? Denver has five news stations which are part of national networks (including Fox and Warner), and two major daily newspapers. How come none of them filed an open records lawsuit to get the information?

A few days before 60 Minutes aired, the daily papers began running stories about the new discoveries. The Jefferson County Sheriff's Office promptly claimed that it had discussed the affidavit at an April 1999 press conference. The Rocky Mountain News, to its credit, looked up the records of that news conference, and found that the conference had not released the affidavit. The News then called the sheriff's office. As the News story reports, "When asked if it was true that the department hadn't disclosed the existence of the document after all, Julian (the sheriff's spokesman) paused, then said, 'If you want to word it that way, sure.' "

In contrast, The Denver Post merely reported the sheriff's claim, and did not investigate the claim's veracity; instead, the reporter simply got reaction comment from two Columbine families.

The best Columbine story, by far, from Colorado print media in recent weeks is Alan Prendergast's "Lights, Camera, No Comment," in the April 12 Westword. The article details numerous cover-ups by local government, the apparent fabrication of details about police (in)action while the murders were in progress, and the depressingly passive attitude on the part of most Denver media.

The Columbine murders led many schools to sometimes-extreme enforcement of "zero-tolerance" policies. In Broomfield, a 16-year-old student faces felony charges because school searchers found an unloaded BB gun in his car. The Broomfield Enterprise broke the story on April 8, and it spread all over the Internet on Monday. The Wall Street Journal's online edition ran the story on Tuesday. The Broomfield story was carried on the Scripps Howard News Service, and the News is a Scripps Howard paper. But the News didn't get around to the story until Wednesday. The Post ignored it entirely.

Last week, Greg Dobbs dinged KOA talk-show host Mike Rosen for accusing the Colorado press of "burying" the new study (conducting by the Miami Herald and USA Today) which found that George Bush would have won Florida under most recounting standards, if the U.S. Supreme Court had not halted the recount. Dobbs wrote that "The Post had it on its front page that very day, and the News had its second consecutive story right up front."

When the story broke on April 4, the Post did put it on Page 1, but the News buried it back on Page 23A, giving it a mere 364 words. (Less space than the News devoted that same day to reviewing the new Comedy Central TV show, That's My Bush!)

The next day, the News ran a different story - "Missing ballots hinder recount by papers." That one appeared on Page 2A, and was more than twice as long (843 words). So the first article, which said, in effect, "Bush really won," ran on Page 23, while the article that said, in effect, "It's not clear if Bush really won," ran on Page 2.

Clear Channel Communications, a national radio conglomerate which owns eight Denver stations, including KOA, shut down the Web simulcasts of its programming. This shutdown significantly reduces the reach of the Clear Channel stations. On the Web, a listener anywhere in the world could tune into KOA or KBCO. Now, if you're beyond the radio signal, you're out of luck.

The Denver Post didn't cover the story. The News offered two paragraphs in their Business Briefing (April 12), concluding with the cryptic comment from a Clear Channel spokesman, "It is our intention to put the streams back up when it makes legal and financial sense."

I went to the KOA Web site, which announced: "Due to continuing uncertainty over rights issues related to the streaming of radio broadcast programming over the Internet, including issues regarding demands for additional fees for the streaming of recorded music and radio commercials, we and our advertisers are forced to temporarily disable our streaming. . . . We are working with both our advertisers and the Recording Industry Association of America to find a solution to those problems as quickly as possible so that we can resume our streaming."

It turns out that radio stations all over the country have been shutting down simulcasts because of the legal dispute. Both daily newspapers tout their high-tech and computer coverage, but both papers missed a very big New Media story.

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