Tennessee panel on Littleton shootings warns against creating scapegoats

Thursday, April 29, 1999

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — First Amendment advocates and a psychologist last night warned participants in a town hall meeting about the shootings in Littleton, Colo., that blaming the Internet and the entertainment industry creates scapegoats and avoids solutions.

“I don't believe the answer is vested in blaming any one group,” said Harold Jordan, a psychologist at Meharry Medical College in Nashville. “I think the answer is vested in parents and children and schools solving problems.”

But students, teachers, parents and community members invited to the taping of “Target: America's Schools” for a local television station mostly avoided blame, preferring instead to search for ways to prevent such violence.

Few offered explanations for the April 20 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, which left 15 dead. But many offered possible solutions, ranging from more parental involvement to boosting school counseling to encouraging more prayer in school.

The Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center sponsored the town hall meeting in its forum along with WKRN/Channel 2, Nashville's ABC affiliate. WKRN plans to air the hourlong program at 7 CDT tonight, while the First Amendment Center is set to Webcast it at noon tomorrow.

Program host Bob Mueller, a WKRN news anchor, said that in the wake of the Littleton shootings, many news organizations have come under intense criticism for their nonstop coverage of the incident.

Gene Policinski, director of special projects for the First Amendment Center, noted that many of the complaints echo those concerning previous school shooting incidents. Policinski helped compile a Freedom Forum report on media coverage in the wake of last year's shooting spree at a middle school in Jonesboro, Ark., which left five dead.

“I think there is no question that the media deserves some lumps for the way it acted in Jonesboro,” Policinski said. “I think there is no question that there are things that people wish the media had done differently in Colorado. But, by and large, we are there because people need to know.”

But Policinski says news organizations can play their roles differently and more effectively. Specifically, he said news organizations must avoid dramatizing or glamorizing events. While the footage and details of the Littleton shootings were certainly dramatic, Policinski said it was the news media's job to present accurate and fair reports.

While news organizations have faced criticism for their reporting of the shootings, the entertainment industry and the Internet have borne much of the blame for the shootings themselves.

Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center, said such criticism came from too many people searching for an “easy answer.” He noted a survey released this week found that 64% of Americans believe that the Internet helped spark the shootings.

“There's a great temptation to get our arms around this kind of problem and say this is the cause,” Paulson said. “I think it's a mistake to embrace these answers.”

He said more than 400 students gathered outside a Reno, Nev., auditorium to protest an upcoming concert by Marilyn Manson, a shock-rock band targeted for its frank lyrics and explosive performances. The band on April 27 canceled the performance.

“Those people sincerely believe that they are helping fight teen violence,” he said. “That's an easy answer. That's a scapegoat.”

Josh Luffman, a senior at Overton High School in Nashville, agreed and said that the Oliver Stone movie “Natural Born Killers” had been a frequent target of criticism.

“If somebody's going to go through a school like this, it's not going to come from a movie, a video game or music,” Luffman said. “It's going to be something that they want to do.”

Paulson asked meeting participants to keep the matter in perspective and understand that the Littleton killings were committed by two disturbed boys, not the entertainment industry. He noted that more than 70 million copies of the violent video game Doom have been sold.

“If this violent environment that we describe has the propensity for encouraging violent behavior, you would think violent crime rates among young people would be up,” he said. “But in fact, the FBI tells us, that they are as low as they've ever been.”

Although government officials have yet to institute new regulations on video games, movies and other entertainment media after the Littleton shootings, some school officials have revised dress codes recently to discourage students from wearing certain attire.

Doug Crozier, principal of Franklin High School in Franklin, Tenn., says he feels dress codes are justified. His school adopted one two years ago.

“I feel like school should be a learning atmosphere and a businesslike atmosphere,” Crozier said. “It became very clear to me over the past couple of years that when you walked down the halls of Franklin High, it appeared that a party was ready to break out instead of learning going on. As far as what you wear at the mall, that's your business.”

Franklin student Betsy Woodcock praised the dress code saying “extremes have to be controlled. It's distracting at school.”

But Alison Henry, another Franklin student, says she worries that school officials unfairly target some students, particularly those who dress in Gothic style. The Gothic style, with its mostly black clothing, has come under fire in the wake of the Littleton shootings.

John Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center, says he worries some talk about the Littleton massacre steers too close to regulating expression. But he said he saw “absolutely nothing wrong with society looking deeply into its own soul and looking deeply into what's happening.”

Seigenthaler says he believes that parents, students and others will eventually take it upon themselves to solve the problems.

“My guess is that it's going to be people in their homes with their children, people in school with their children, and not the government solving it for us,” he said.