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Media (Mis)Coverage of the Columbine School Shooting

Debunking the "Gay Biker" urban myth.
How a prank posted to a newsgroup got out of hand.

The comments below were posted following the shootings at Columbine High School in April 1999.  Included is the old logo we used at the time, note the station frequencies of WWDB AM (860) & FM (96.5) Since then WWDB has ceased talk on the FM and moved the call letters to AM 860.

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Page created, April 1999

In the wake of the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado I found a disturbing trend of media bias regarding one minor matter. What turned this minor story angle into something more was a general laziness with regard to fact checking and the unwillingness to accept information when it conflicted with earlier assumptions by the very media the professes to be the bastion of information. The media in question is Talk Radio and this is the story... Philly Talk Radio Online.com logo

Tuesday Afternoon, April 20th

While answering my email, as is routine for me in the afternoon, I got news of another tragedy in one of our nation's schools. I had the radio turned on and listened in sadness while trying to go through my mail. The ABC News Feed currently on instead of regular programming was distracting insofar as the anchor-voice kept repeating how "amazing" the video was. A good enough reason right there to turn off the radio and watch the tube but I kept mine on while my wife watched in horror from the kitchen. "Are you hearing this!", she would call out. "Yes, let me get this done and I'll be right out." Kathy walked up behind me and wondered what news or background info was available online. Having three kids ourselves we were very curious so I launched into a search online for whatever we could find. Little did I know just how much information on Columbine was available (websites, contact info, alumni etc.) nor how poorly it would be received. The following is an attempt to recount a small part of what happened next.

I will post here in yellow the same pieces that went up on the main page of this site and some additional information and comments in green.

Tuesday Evening

After such a disturbing tragedy ("equation" would be a better term, to borrow a phrase from Dom G) it's both amazing and unnerving the amount of information we have available to us. Shortly after the news broke I looked up the school's home page on the net and by tracking down various sub pages, teachers names, school clubs and various other home pages done by alumni I could get a feel for what the school was like. This also yielded a wealth of contact information as well. I wonder how many other news organizations thought of doing this. Tons of them, later the same links I saved became overwhelmed and several stopped responding altogether. You snooze, you lose.

It goes without saying that the premeditated act carried out today is as close to pure evil as can be. The other online thread of information yielded information that I can only call "creepy". A search on the Usenet yielded a disturbing pro Trench Coat Mafia post that you may have heard mentioned on the Radio or TV. It was a real pain getting voice mail from one local station when I tried to pass along some of this information. Looking into the music connection was similarly depressing. I quickly gave up this quest.

Nearly every televised tragedy prompts the newsies to put almost anyone on the air. Remember the O.J. chase? TWA flight 800?, The cruise ship fire? - During these and many others A Howard Stern fan would call in and make a fool of the anchor. I don't hold any ill will toward these people (in fact if I myself were to die in some large disaster I hope they call in then too) but I have come to see it as a part of a larger problem of the Newsies being so willing to put anything on the air at all to fill time.

The above went up after dinner. Prior to that point I had heard from online friends that a story was circulating that there were "warnings" allegedly posted before the shootings occurred. On AOL there is a feature called a "Member Profile."  When you create a "screen name" (you get 5 per account in 1998 - this is an important point) you can, if you wish, provide a profile that is added to a searchable database.  These profiles are useful as well as well known for pranks. One local Philly music jock had provided, after the Lewinsky scandal broke, in his profile that he was a former intern at the White House!  He was promptly contacted by one of the tabloids for a paid story, which he declined.  It is possible on AOL to create a screen name then fraudulently furnish a profile and watch it create a stir. This did happen the in the hours following the shooting. AOL released a statement Wednesday evening that it seized dozens of accounts and started an investigation. AOL further stated that many if not all of these profiles were created after the shooting. The screen name reported to belong to one of the killers is NOT part of this story. Along with his profile and website being widely reported so were many of the fake ones. As the days went by many internet news sites realized their error and removed the false profiles.

The main point of this story is this "Creepy" post I found on Deja-News. (link may or may not work) http://x16.dejanews.com/[ST_rn=qs]/getdoc.xp?AN=468757180&CONTEXT=924646229.364052583&hitnum=0

Columbine HS, The Gay Alamo 
Author: queen_jeff <queen_jeff@my-dejanews.com>
Date: 1999/04/20
Forum: alt.motorcycles.harley
more headers / author posting history
Greetings Gay Bikers,

Today, a bunch of our fellow homosexuals at Columbine HS in Denver Colorado,
known as the Trench Coat Mafia, decided that they had taken enough crap from
the straight community that had been abusing them and have decided to take
matters into their own hands.  We should all applaud their bravery and hope
that they can hold out as long as possible in their fight for gay people
everywhere.  We can only hope that they can turn this into the gay alamo and
hold out for 13 days of glory.  If they can hold out for two days I think gay
bikers everywhere should considering riding into Denver as a relief force to
fight alongside them.

We need to show solidarity!!!

Queen Jeff

-----------== Posted via Deja News, The Discussion Network ==----------
Under the "More Headers" link was this information

Columbine HS, The Gay Alamo 

Author:

queen_jeff <queen_jeff@my-dejanews.com>

Date:

1999/04/20

Forum:

alt.motorcycles.harley

Posted on:

1999/04/20

Message-ID:

<7filom$aou$1@nnrp1.dejanews.com>

Newsgroups:

alt.motorcycles.harley

Organization:

Deja News - The Leader in Internet Discussion

X-Article-Creation-Date:

Tue Apr 20 19:49:43 1999 GMT

X-Http-Proxy:

1.1 x7.dejanews.com:80 (Squid/1.1.22) for client 12.77.230.178

X-Http-User-Agent:

Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 5.0; MSN 2.5; Windows 98; isp1133)

This post was the focus of MANY Internet sites, syndicated radio shows, short-wave radio "reporting" and local talk radio shows. I had gathered the info on this post and tried to relay it to a local "NewsTalk" station. The same station that I mention above who pulled regular programming for an ABC News Feed. After repeatedly failing to connect with the news department at the station, I sent the information via email.

The fun started when rumors flew that the post was part of a larger "warning" of the attack. Many believed the post went up before the shooting but I quickly found this not to be the case as explained below.

When I got up very early Wednesday I heard the rumor read on the air by a WWDB host. Not in a sensationalistic way but sort of matter of fact, just relating a story angle to the listeners. I called the producer up and let him know of what I was looking into as far as that rumor was concerned. To his credit the producer, Ed McGerty, quickly and accurately passed along the info. The Host quickly took my word for it and passed along a caveat to the listeners.

Wednesday April 20th

Anatomy of a scam.
Today in the wake of the shootings at Columbine High School much was made about the alleged news that the gang was made up of gay males. Drudge fell for it and several nationally syndicated shows made hay out of it. They were scammed. Not on purpose but they fell for a forgery posted to Deja-News.

Here's the proof. My sweet wife had the idea of tracking down the author after we read his post. We looked into his posting history and while finding gay related posts none of them made reference to anything near the school. He further lied in a previous post that he lived in San Francisco. We found that out by tracking his IP# (12.77.230.178) and it led to an AT&T account from New Jersey. The post went up at 19:49 GMT and that would make it well after the shooting, east coast time.

How in the world this obvious fraud made it so widespread is beyond me. I had tried to relate this info to that NEW local News/Talk station. After repeated attempts (they shelved their talk show for a 4 hour live feed from ABC and as a result did not take calls) with less than stellar responses I fired off an email that likely was sucked into the great void that is their email system. Wondering what to do with this and much other info developed yesterday afternoon I sat there until dinner was ready and, well.... my stomach comes first.

Let me state that they may indeed BE gay, it's just that you must be careful about what you read and hear about on the net and it's our DUTY as talk listeners to establish a credible and trusting relationship with the host and pass along any accurate relevant information when possible. In this case a live host beats a network news feed any day.

The IP# attached to the post was traced to this Provider

AT&T ITS (NET-ATT)
   101 Crawfords Corner Rd
   Holmdel, NJ 07733-3030
   US

   Netname: ATT
   Netblock: 12.0.0.0 - 12.255.255.255
   Maintainer: ATTW

   Coordinator:
      Kostick, Deirdre  (DK71-ARIN)  help@IP.ATT.NET
      (888)613-6330

   Domain System inverse mapping provided by:

   DBRU.BR.NS.ELS-GMS.ATT.NET	199.191.128.106
   DMTU.MT.NS.ELS-GMS.ATT.NET	12.127.16.70
   CBRU.BR.NS.ELS-GMS.ATT.NET	199.191.128.105
   CMTU.MT.NS.ELS-GMS.ATT.NET	12.127.16.69

   Record last updated on 26-Sep-98.
   Database last updated on 23-Apr-99 16:13:50 EDT.

 

No normal person lives on the West Coast and uses an IP in New Jersey!
Having previously lied in earlier posts that he lived in San Franscisco,
many people believed the post went up far earlier than it really was.

The rumor didn't die down at all nationally but at least I thought I effectively conveyed my suspicion to at least one host. I further tried to contact the station, it's PD and several additional hosts. I felt that, as a listener, I had some obligation to pass along the information.

Thursday April 21st

I somehow managed to piss off some people with my comments this week regarding the coverage of events surrounding the shootings as Columbine High School. Some pretty big names in radio to boot. I have the privilege of exchanging email with several network and syndication types and they were either confused of angered by my assertion that big media grew lazy in covering certain aspects of the story. The main focus of my interest was how it related to LOCAL talk programming. I can't begin to list all the email and questions I got on this page or my responses to them so I will post a follow up email to the station.
................
Regarding the initial media coverage of the shooting at Columbine High School and the reported "Gay" angle and subsequent dispute over just how much emphasis to place on that particular detail.

My view is this.
On one side 'The Liberal Media' initially ignored the supposed "Gay" angle, not wanting to believe that it possible that homosexuals were capable of such horrific behavior but later they indeed seized upon the allegation when they, the media, thought that the shooters, if indeed gay, could be considered VICTIMS of abuse and intolerance.

On the other side 'The Conservative Media' MAY have automatically been suspicious of the Liberal Media and as a result played up the "Gay" angle. People like Drudge, once having gone down the road he did, only looked at other media outlets that supported HIS OWN initial conclusions. He repeatedly posted only the information that supported HIS OWN initial bias and even continued to post erroneous information well after it was shown to be false. This is evident in the case of AOL issuing a statement that false "member profiles" (some of which were posted by Drudge) were created to give the impression of belonging to members of the "Trench Coat Mafia," these profiles were created AFTER the shooters were already dead.

Both sides, Conservative and Liberal sought refuge in each of their own biases.

MY point in this is that, unlike my wife, the BIG BOYS on TV and radio NEVER THOUGHT TO CHECK OUT THE ORIGINAL SOURCE. Or maybe it's too easy to become lazy. I on the other hand believe that as a listener I HAVE AN OBLIGATION to check out information BEFORE sending it to a host and if confusing information IS uncovered then I MUST follow up and make an effort to clear it up.

In the end I don't care one way or the other whether these animals are gay. I do care about the accuracy of information on a station that I spend much of my time listening to. The inability to convey this information to "NewsTalk" 96.5 during such a breaking news story is also frustrating. I was unable to do this earlier the day before, during the ABC news feed, despite repeated tries. It wasn't until I woke up for work at 1 am and tuned into your show that I heard information that I believed to be tainted read on the air and I again attempted to again pass along what I had found out. The ability to call in and get results, as was the case with you and your producer Ed McGerty, is at the very core of LOCAL talk radio. Maybe THIS is a problem that should be addressed by the management of WWDB. I think this is a bit more important than some of the other complaints they may be getting.

This really freaked some people out! The sad part was that the station continued to get calls from mucking forons who would profess to have "amazing information" regarding the "Gay Bikers and the Trench Coat Mafia". One particular idiot claimed to get all his reliable information via short-wave radio and he found the "truth" by listening to a talk radio program on short-wave. He related how gay bikers from across the country planned to ride to the school and take up arms. I wonder where the legions of gay bikers are now? Somewhere on Route 66 I imagine! Now I understand how many people like to listen to short-wave and what a resource it is as far as getting information from remote place like now in the Balkans but why in the world is information considered more reliable just because it is heard over short-wave? OR even the television or a Talk Radio program?

In the end I have come to realize that many people in Talk Radio won't let the facts get in the way of a good story. Despite information to the contrary being available it was just too much work for some people to listen to it. Far easier to let misinformation go out over the air and in the end further the stereotype that Talk Radio as a format is not all that credible.

Surf

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