Inside the Virginia Tech Media Pack

By Ian Shapira
Sunday, April 29, 2007; 12:00 AM

All I remembered seeing was a huge scrum of reporters encircling a student outside the Inn at Virginia Tech, and then my legs revved into motion.

With a notebook at the ready, I scurried outside the inn and headed over to The Pack, my mind buzzing over an array of questions: Who'd they get? Why didn't I get this guy first? Geraldo's here? And then: How pathetic is this?

I was late for this impromptu presser, and could tell that the student had unspooled most of his story, but no matter. I followed him and his parents back to their car, along with a few other reporters peppering them with questions. What's your name? Alec Calhoun, he says, of Waynesboro, Va. Spell that for me? Okay, I'm really sorry to be the umpteenth person to ask you, but . . . what happened to you?

Two weeks after Seung Hui Cho's rampage that left 33 dead, including the gunman, I still feel guilty about the way we reporters chased after students for horror stories. We approached Asian students -- any Asian student -- asking if they knew Cho or knew someone who knew him. We skulked around the shooter's dormitory, Harper Hall, waiting for students to enter, treating them like starlets on premiere night.

Perhaps our desperation was fueled by the difficulty in finding survivors or friends of Cho. Or, perhaps because, no matter what happens, the media must manufacture celebrities.

So, we had no compunction about interrogating students such as Timothy Johnson of Annandale, who stood outside Harper Hall and held forth to insistent reporters that he once passed Cho and said "hi" to him, and that Cho said "hi" back. It was all the more ridiculous when I saw not one, but two other staffers from The Washington Post huddling around him. We were all looking for characters to tell this story, and Johnson, essentially, was auditioning.

Indeed, Harper Hall served as a center stage for the media's Ringling Bros.-like behavior. (The two biggest cliches from covering this story: "circus" and "loner.") At one point, students living on the second floor of Harper opened their windows and leaned out, looking onto the ground at the reporters. The reporters shouted questions upward and hoisted their camera equipment up to the windows. It reminded me of Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street, save for the beads and bouncing flesh.

Being competitive, I wasn't going to shout questions to Brian Winthrop of New Jersey, who was one of the students looking out a window. So I yelled out my cellphone number for him so we could talk privately.

He dished. He didn't know Cho, but he did say that the FBI came by his room the previous night with photos of an Asian student. He gave me a decent quote about how creepy it was knowing that he lived in the same building with someone who had been plotting a mass murder the whole time.

But Winthrop really came in handy when I put him to work. Because police were inside the main Harper entrances, blocking reporters, I asked him to get inside Cho's room and memorize everything he could about it, as if his eyes were a video recorder. Winthrop came back with scant details, so I made another request: Could you sneak me in through a back door?

I made it into Cho's suite. It was early on Tuesday, April 17. It was a little victory. But there was nothing there, except for the usual dorm detritus, like a crushed box that once contained sodas, and some crumpled newspapers. Maybe the same newspaper Cho read before his onslaught? When a student walked by and identified herself as a resident adviser, she asked who I was. "I'm a guest of Brian's," I said tartly. She knew the game. "Are you a member of the media?"

As we walked down the steps, I couldn't help myself: "Since you're an RA in this building," I said, incorrigibly, "it'd be great to talk with you about your expertise in dealing . . ." She cut me off. She was shrewd enough to catch on.

Alec Calhoun was shrewd, too, hip to media tricks, but at least he knew the ultimate value in telling his story, which was an unusually positive one. After he escaped from the dozens of reporters surrounding him, I went after him while he walked to his family's car, and he agreed to talk. His account was compelling: He sneaked out of a window in room 204 in Norris Hall right before the gunman entered. "You leapt out?" I asked.

"No," he said. "I didn't just leap. I hung from the ledge and dropped," he said. Perfect. A man who knows nuance and storytelling.

I felt awkward and guilty being the aggressive reporter but I felt I had to, not simply because I'm competitive but because it's often necessary to bring home the full picture of what happened.

We got Calhoun's account into the lead story of the paper the next day -- the 24th paragraph, to be exact.

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