Saturday, September 30, 2006

Near Constant Threat

Journalists are accustomed to long hours. Abdel Karim Hamadie is no exception. His workday has lasted three weeks. That's the last time he went home. Hamadie coordinates broadcasts on Al Iraqiya, an 18-hour-a-day state-run network initially financed by the Pentagon. His position as head of the network makes him an instant target for insurgents. That's why he doesn't go home. Iraqi journalists work under the worst conditions; their lives constantly threatened.

As I write this in the final moments of the month of September, my mind is with those journalists who have given their lives not just for the story but for the concept of the Fourth Estate. It means so much to so many, but at a grave price. This year, 20 journalists' deaths in Iraq have been recorded by the Committee to Protect Journalists. At the current rate, the number of journalists killed there in 2006 could surpass the previous wartime record of 24, set in 2004.

Earlier this year, Steffan Tubbs, a good friend was sent on assignment to Iraq. Aside from his broadcasts, he posted daily web dispatches and the occasional photo, including the one above of him in the center of his security detail. He wrote of late night patrols with Ghost Troop, the same unit ABC's Bob Woodruff and crew were with when their Humvee struck an IED. After learning that, I remember praying for Tubbs' safety. A week or so later he returned with incredible stories to tell and a newfound respect for our servicemen. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Conflict has been with American journalism since day one – from eyewitness reports of the first revolutionary battle in the Massachusetts Spy – to the present. Journalists will not put their pens and microphones down until the story is told, however great the risk. Abdel Karim Hamadie knows there is never a good month for journalists in Iraq. September was terrible. We can hope October will be better.

Friday, September 29, 2006

"Not Again"

A friendly hello just didn't feel right. "Not again, August." That is how a close friend began our phone conversation Wednesday evening. Disbelief is the only way to describe how people have responded to the Platte Canyon High School shooting, in and out of Colorado. Another friend covering the story says, "he was going to kill all of them." That gunman Duane Morrison didn't is something of a miracle.

That is little consolation to the family of Emily Keyes. She's the 16-year-old killed when SWAT teams stormed the classroom where Morrison was holding her. After firing a shot at the advancing team, Morrison turned and leveled his gun at Keyes who was trying to flee.

The impact of Wednesday's shooting will be broad. For SWAT teams, it presents new procedural questions. In 1999, as National Guard troops enveloped Littleton neighborhoods around Columbine, SWAT teams were criticized for entering the school too slowly. The question being asked now is: did they move in too fast? Was their decision predicated in part on criticism from Columbine. That siege added a chapter to SWAT team manuals on hostage situations known as active shooter situations. The concept requires law enforcement to enter a school before a SWAT team is fully readied; if the shooter or shooters is killing hostages. Before the raid into the Platte Canyon classroom, Morrison had not killed any hostages. He had released four of them. Officers and deputies were presented with a new dilemma, however, when it became apparent to them he was sexually assaulting the remaining girls.

Until now, the most high-profile case Park County Sheriff Fred Wegener had dealt with was a triple homocide carried out by two teenage gunman. A forthcoming book, "Simon Says," by Colorado Springs journalist Kathryn Eastburn chronicles that bizarre story. Wegener will now have to justify his decision for SWAT teams to enter the classroom. Wegener knew his decision would weigh heavily -- his own son is a student at Platte Canyon High School.

Wegener did have control of his decision and whether it was justified will be the target of numerous post-operational reviews. What he had no control over, however, is an epidemic of school violence over the past decade.

This week, Colorado saw it's second school shooting. Today, the nation saw it's second school shooting of the week in Wisconsin. If you include the shooting at Dawson College in Montreal, there have been three in two weeks.

In the days following April 20th, 1999, in between my radio live shots, I would walk through the makeshift memorial that took up a corner of Clement Park adjacent to Columbine. In one direction, it stretched a quarter-mile. People from around the nation sent flowers, cards and placards they had signed. They pleaded for peace and an awakening to come from the darkness of that Tuesday morning. That was seven years ago. Why does it seem we are so quick to forget?

Echoes of Columbine

Seven years ago, I was reporting from Clement Park, the Littleton park adjacent to Columbine High School. Anyone who covered Columbine will tell you it left searing memories – not just on those involved – but on legions of seasoned journalists who rushed to cover the story. At the time, I was a 17-year-old cub reporter filing stories for stations across the country. The impact was three-fold…a national-level crisis was unfolding in the state I love most. A sanctuary of learning, where safety should never be compromised was now marred with bodies, bombs and pools of blood; textbooks in the school library – tools for learning, were stained with cerebral fluid. The pain seemed personal. I was reporting on a massacre of people my age, my peers.

On Wednesday, a tidal wave of Columbine memories flooded audiences across the nation as gunman Duane Morrison took students at Platte Canyon High School hostage making Colorado one of only two states to be the scene of two school shootings.

Coincidentally, moments before I learned I would anchor KOMU’s national report for the first time, I got word from a colleague on the unfolding scene in the tiny mountain town of Bailey. I had spent a decent amount of time there too during both the massive Hayman and Hi Meadow wildfires. I immediately tuned in to Denver stations, listening and watching many of the same reporters from Columbine. My stomach was put in a knot. The only reassuring fact was the number of students inside the school was low, and several hostages had been released. This country has become accustomed to students killing classmates. This time it was not a student though. Morrison was 53-years-old, a drifter who a former neighbor says was gruff and customarily aloof.


The same haunting question asked throughout Columbine is being posed once again: why? Who was Duane Morrison and what were his motivations? Morrison had a criminal history, but only for minor offenses. Those who knew him say they never expected this. What compels a grown man to perpetrate such a crime? Park County Sheriff Fred Wegener thinks he may have an answer. The sheriff says Morrison left a suicide note. Wegener has yet to elaborate on what it says. Like Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, Morrison may have addressed his motivations. Sadly, in the end, he had to address his emotions not only with words, but weapons.

***There are more blog entries to come on this topic. They have been delayed until now due to other stories Skamenca is working.***

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Evening News Horse Race

Changes at the network helms and addition of Katie Couric have sparked a renewed competition among the Big Three for the top spot in the evening news slot. An Associated Press story shows a competitive race being waged by Williams, Couric and Gibson. In that order. Don't write off Gibson, who even in third place, is within striking distance of first place. With 7.68 million viewers, World News Tonight with Charles Gibson is roughly 600,000 viewers behind Williams' audience of 8.18 million.

What does this mean? The answer: with 30 million regular viewers network news is not dead. In 40 years, the Big Three broadcasts have lost about 50% of their audience. Considering how the news market has fractured with many options both on cable and online, this 50% drop could, and statistically, should have cut deeper.

That the networks are grappling for the top spot is encouraging, proof positive that resources can and probably will be used to enhance network broadcasts.


Below is the AP article...

NBC pulled ahead last week in the suddenly supercharged network evening-news derby, according to preliminary ratings.

"NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams" was the most-watched newscast for all five nights, ending the two-week winning streak posted by CBS anchor Katie Couric since her Sept. 5 debut, according to early Nielsen Media Research figures released Monday by NBC.

Final numbers for Sept. 18-22 will be out Tuesday.

The NBC newscast averaged 8.18 million viewers, while "CBS Evening News" drew an audience of 7.69 million, according to the preliminary ratings. ABC's "World News with Charles Gibson" was watched by 7.58 million viewers.

Last week, Couric's second on the job, "CBS Evening News" averaged 7.88 million viewers to edge past NBC's audience tally of 7.83 million.

In her debut week, Couric led the CBS newscast to its first weekly ratings win in five years with an average audience of 10.2 million, eclipsing NBC's 7.1 million and ABC's 6.9 million. NBC, the longtime front-runner, has placed first for 112 of the last 116 weeks.

CBS News President Sean McManus has reiterated that the focus of his network's new-look newscast is on "long-term developments, not the short term."

Friday, September 15, 2006

Pain Preserved; Pain Projected?

We’ve learned this week’s shooting rampage at Dawson College in Montreal may have been motivated by Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Their influence on gunman Kimveer Gill though came not only in the wrath of destruction they wreaked on Columbine, but from a flickering computer screen and first-person shooting game. Created by Colorado native Danny Ledonne, “Super Columbine Massacre” takes players on a virtual tour of the Littleton, Colorado, high school. The game allows those who play, to maim, shoot and kill students and teachers. Unlike many violent video games, it goes one step further with dead students’ and teachers’ corpses remaining in the game. Their bodies bloodied, unlike other games, they do not disappear and instead remain lifeless in a pool of blood. Ladonne, who works as a youth counselor, doesn’t think his game had any role in the killings. Three parallels may suggest differently. Like Harris and Klebold, Gill stormed his school cafeteria. He was armed to the teeth and had cloaked his weapons -- like the Columbine killers -- under a trench coat.

Whatever the case, the mayhem in Montreal renews the question we asked throughout Columbine and years after: does violence in the media have an impact on real crime?

Monday, September 11, 2006

America's News Diet Post-9-11

Since that monumental day five years ago, there has been no absence of 9-11 related stories. There is, however, a fiery debate about the state of America's news diet. Thanks guys, for an engaging conversation! For those of you who weren't there, I wanted to provide this salient report which examines coverage by the networks. It was put out by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

As promised: