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Initial Media Reports After Columbine and 9/11 Were Just as Wrong

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Slade Sohmer

By Slade Sohmer on December 18, 2012

The media, whatever that term means these days, misreported almost every detail about the Sandy Hook school shootings. Legacy media outlets got it wrong. New media companies had it wrong. Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook passed along wrong information. Everyone got this tragedy very, very wrong in their initial reporting. Everyone. Very few people can escape finger-pointing, and most of them were on vacation.

Here’s a brief list of just some of what was misreported during Sandy Hook:

• The shooter was Ryan Lanza (then posted his Facebook page)
• The shooter’s mother worked at Sandy Hook
• The shooter had an accomplice, who was on the loose and/or arrested
• The shooter used two handguns and left his AR-15 in the car
• The shooter was buzzed into the building
• The shooter argued with Sandy Hook staff members
• The shooter’s girlfriend and a friend were missing
• The shooter’s father was also killed at some point

It’s social media’s fault! Toldja you can’t trust the Internet! What’s that Morgan Freeman quote about the media getting it so wrong?!

Yes, the media got it wrong on this particular breaking news story, and that laundry list is incredibly troubling. But this quick-to-report, quick-to-be-wrong news culture isn’t exactly new, and it’s certainly not the direct fault of Twitter or Facebook or Internet news sites that want your precious clicks.

Given my well-circulated thoughts on the BuzzFeed/Oatmeal flap last week, it would be hypocritical to say that we should lie there and take it. But in examining the issue, let us keep in view that this problem has dogged us for a lot longer than Twitter and Facebook and Internet news sites have been around. In the case of 9/11, before true smartphones and 24/7 news sites, legacy outlets were scaring the crap out of us when we least deserved it. In the case of Columbine, the initial reports were not only wrong, many of these myths are still held as truths TO THIS VERY DAY. Take a look …


Trench Coat Mafia: Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were originally reported to be members of the “Trench Coat Mafia.” The New York Times even wrote a full profile on this group of gamer goths in an April 21, 1999 piece called “TERROR IN LITTLETON: THE TRENCH COAT MAFIA; Students on the Fringe Found a Way to Stand Out.” Here’s an except from the piece:

But investigators now believe that among the dozen or so students in the group were the people responsible for yesterday’s mass shooting at the high school, which left an estimated 25 people dead and at least 20 others wounded. Two suspects were identified by the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department as Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, who were found dead of self-inflicted gunshot wounds amid the carnage. Two other people were being held in custody.

Author Dave Cullen debunked many of the oft-repeated myths in his well-researched book, “Columbine,” but this particular one fell the hardest. In fact, most of the original members of the Trench Coat Mafia had graduated by the time Harris and Klebold committed the massacre. Harris and Klebold were not members but friends with only one of the group’s members, Chris Morris. Neither Morris nor any other Trench Coat Mafia member was ever officially considered a suspect or charged with involvement in the shooting.

• They were bullied: Both the Washington Post and the New York Times published articles in the immediate aftermath of the shooting detailing the culture of bullying at Columbine, a culture in which Harris and Klebold were allegedly frequent victims. Cullen does not deny that bullying took place at Columbine, but rather that Harris and Klebold were not its targets; he alleges that Harris was himself a bully.

• They targeted jocks: Initial reports described Harris and Klebold as beginning their killing spree in the library with the demand, “All the jocks stand up!” The story spread that the shooters had targeted athletes — the alleged bullies. While Klebold and Harris didn’t particularly like the “jocks,” that story is false, and the truth lies closer to the fact that the teen killers fired indiscriminately, going for body count, not targets.

• But they targeted other groups, too: Then the story evolved: They had a whole hit list! Harris and Klebold were targeting African-Americans and Christians, too. One such story, circulating quickly after the massacre, claimed that Harris specifically asked Cassie Bernall if she believed in God. When she said yes, he fired and killed her. Bernall may have been a believer, but Cullen wrote: “He didn’t pause long, or even stoop down far enough for Emily to see his face. She saw the sawed-off gun barrel. The opening was huge. She looked into Cassie’s brown eyes. Cassie was still praying. There was no time for words between them. Eric shot Cassie in the head.”

• There was a hostage stand-off: Initial reports suggested Columbine was a hostage situation. But the killers never planned to take any hostages, and they had both been dead more than three hours before SWAT teams found their bodies. The whole thing lasted less than a half-hour.

• They wanted to orchestrate the deadliest school shooting: Even the very premise of Columbine is wrong. While the carnage revealed 12 dead students and one teacher, the initial plan was more of an Oklahoma City-type bombing than a Sandy Hook-style shooting. “It’s pretty clear now that the initial plan was to have the two propane bombs they put in the cafeteria go off,” a top investigator said. “And that’s as indiscriminate as you can get.”

9/11 Attacks

The morning of September 11, 2001, provided us with more initial reports that turned out to be off base.

• CNN at one point, after the first plane hit, aired someone (unidentified in the transcript) saying, “I don’t know whether we’ve confirmed that this was an aircraft, or to be more specific, some people said they thought they saw a missile. I don’t know how people could differentiate, but we might keep open the possibility that this was a missile attack on these buildings.”

• At 8:45 am, the Ottawa Citizen reported that a “Cessna-type” aircraft crashed into the World Trade Center (they weren’t alone.)

• At 9:42am, NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski told viewers that “it appears that a bomb was detonated at the [Pentagon] heliport.” Six minutes later, Tom Brokaw said there was a report on Dubai television that Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine had claimed responsibility. The DFLP quickly stated it was against the hijacking of airplanes.

• 10:12am — CNN reported, “There’s a report of an explosion on Capitol Hill.” Five minutes later, a congressional correspondent said there was no explosion, but that “the Speaker and other leaders have been evacuated to a secure location.”

• Three times, according to Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, CBS’ Dan Rather told viewers of a car bomb at the State Department.

“Let me pause and say that a car bomb has exploded outside the State Department in Washington,” Rather told his audience on September 11. He repeated: “Now a car bomb has exploded outside the State Department in Washington. No further details available on that.” He reported this car bomb explosion as fact at least three further times before finally adding a qualifier, referring to “a car bomb, which was reported to have exploded outside the State Department.”

Rather also reported, later that evening, an event that never happened, and ever corrected it either: “Now this just in from New York City. Marcia Kramer, former newspaper woman, now working at WCBS-TV, in New York, says that sources have told her that two people have been arrested with explosives under the George Washington Bridge.” Rather later backtracked, but only went as far as “Maybe it’s true and maybe it isn’t.”

Now what?

Even if we did implement some “common sense media control,” as Matt K. Lewis wrote for The Week, it’s likely nothing will change. We live in a culture that demands immediacy, and news organizations and social media platforms are well-designed to give the people what they want.

The genie isn’t going back in the bottle. Sadly, this is the way that it was, this is the way it is, and this is the way it will be.

Slade Sohmer is co-founder and editor-in-chief of HyperVocal. He is also co-host of SiriusXM’s daily “Politics Powered By Twitter” show.

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