Journalist/author Dave Cullen is cautioning reporters to be careful with what they write about James Holmes, arrested for the Dark Knight Rises massacre in Aurora, Colorado. "In 1999, I lived in Colorado and was part of the first wave of reporters to descend on Columbine High School the afternoon it was attacked," he recalled in an op-ed in Sunday's New York Times. "I ran with the journalistic pack that created the myths we are still living with. We created those myths for one reasons: we were trying to answer the burning question of why, and we were trying to answer it way too soon. I spent 10 years studying Columbine, and we all know what happened there, right? Two outcast loners exacted revenge against the jocks for relentlessly bullying them.
"Not one bit of that turned out to be true."
On Saturday Cullen covered a lot of the same ground on MSNBC's Up w/ Chris Hayes.
Cullen, author of the 2009 book Columbine, said transcripts he reviewed of CNN's first four hours of Columbine coverage show the narrative swiftly taking hold. "It goes from reporters asking kids open-ended questions like 'Did you know the two killers?,' 'What were they like?,' to more leading questions like 'We're hearing they're loners, we're hearing they're outcasts. Is that true?' and kids, most of whom didn't really know them or didn't know them at all, who were in the school and, you know, everybody's a witness, saying 'Yes, they were,' and then like by hour three it was taken as a given, and within the first four hours all the myths were established."
Reporters certainly need to be careful about the questions they ask, because questions predetermine answers. But should we be surprised that an hour or two into the Columbine coverage reporters believed they were getting somewhere and their questions began boring in? No one was sent to the story with instructions not to try to make sense of it?
Does Cullen want the journalistic pack that's descended on Aurora to hold off on the question of why Holmes did it—to hold off ten years, if need be? Journalists aren't wired that way, and neither is the audience for journalism.
The truth about Harris isn't actually very surprising, Cullen conceded in the Times. "He was a cold-blooded psychopath." Klebold, on the other hand, was "ferociously angry" but primarily at himself. He was "profoundly depressed." Yet he left a journal in which "ten pages are consumed with drawings of giant fluffy hearts. Some fill entire pages, others dance about in happy clusters, with 'I LOVE YOU' stenciled across."
Do these revelations satisfactorily answer the question of why? On the one hand, why is a question that can never be answered with complete certainty; on the other, it's a question the public asks immediately. I think reporters—proceeding with the greatest care and humility—might as well get on with it, even in hour one.