The TV images were searingly familiar. Terror-stricken people scrambling to safety. Heavily armed police officers hustling to the scene. Covered bodies being loaded into ambulances.
The killing of 12 people by a gunman in Atlanta on Thursday brought back echoes of Columbine High School in April. In several important ways, the two events were similar--in the means and method of attack, in their senselessness and amount of carnage.
But where Columbine lingered in the national consciousness for many days, the Atlanta killings were struggling for media attention yesterday, less than 24 hours after the first reports broke.
All three national cable news networks carried live coverage of a news conference by Atlanta's police chief; all three later aired tapes of the initial 911 calls. But by 2 p.m. yesterday, Fox News Channel was busy analyzing a Congressional tax-cut proposal and MSNBC was summing up the action on the bond market. Despite the proximity of the news to its headquarters, Atlanta-based CNN slipped in reports on the stock market and President Clinton as well. The broadcast networks never turned away from soap operas. "Jerry Springer" was not preempted.
To news analysts and news decision-makers, the relative indifference to Atlanta boils down to two key factors: the victims and the setting.
"In Colorado, you had minors, teenagers," both as victims and perpetrators, said John Moody, Fox News Channel's vice president of news, "and I think that still shocks and offends people more than an office shooting. It strikes some horrible chord in most people, especially parents."
If TV reflects the national mood, the Atlanta story was a chilling shudder, not the paroxysm of grief and mourning that tumbled out of Littleton. NBC, ABC and CBS spent slightly more than 12 minutes on the murders during their nightly newscasts Thursday. Then, they moved on--to the summer heat wave, to economic news, to Clinton's legal troubles.
By contrast, the Big Three devoted almost 31 minutes to recounting the events at Columbine on the day that tragedy occurred, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington.
"Columbine was unusual," argues Carl Gottlieb, a veteran TV news director who is now deputy director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington. "Children are assumed to be safe and nurtured in school. That assumption was wiped out. No one expects to go to the office and be killed, but the fact that [Columbine involved] children heightens people's sense of it. When you deal with children, there is a hyper sense of realism."
The lack of saturation coverage may have correctly reflected the public interest. During the first five hours after Columbine, some 3.4 million households turned to CNN, according to network spokesman Earl E. Casey. Viewership was less than half that amount, 1.54 million, in the first five hours after Thursday's incident. The smaller audience came despite the fact that CNN's coverage in Atlanta ran into prime-time hours, when viewing levels peak.
It may be, too, that both rampages came from opposite directions of trends in social pathology. Atlanta followed years of multiple-fatality workplace shootings, an act of devastation so mundanely familiar to Americans that it has become known in mordant shorthand as "going postal."
Columbine also followed a string of school shootings, but these occurred over a far shorter period. Columbine seemed to be a horrifying culmination of that trend; the deaths of 15 people at the high school were by far the greatest loss of life during such an incident. It immediately touched off a wide-ranging debate--over gun control, the influence of video games and movies, the Internet, family values and the nature of being a teenager in America.
What's more, Columbine's two young killers presented an unfathomable--and to some, tragically romantic--mystery. To many, they seemed like typical, if troubled, kids, somehow driven to kill by forces still unexplained. This mystery kept the story alive for weeks.
By contrast, details about the possible motives, and probably criminal past, of Atlanta killer Mark O. Barton were known almost within minutes of his rampage. In news reports, Barton was portrayed in highly specific terms: as a middle-aged man suspected in the bludgeoning deaths of his former wife and mother-in-law, who turned in murderous rage against his own family and others after losing thousands of dollars in stock trades. As such, his story left far less to speculation than Columbine.
"When a criminal act is portrayed as just individual pathology, then it becomes just a 'what-happened' story," says Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. But "the media set the public agenda when they turn an event into a social-trend story. That's not what's going on here. This is not a story about which journalists are asking, 'What does it all mean, what does it say about us as a society?' "
That's not a reflection of the media's jadedness with mass murder, Lichter adds. It's that the Colorado shootings fed a mass public anxiety: "People were primed to think and worry about [school shootings]. And then it happened again and everything cut loose."