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Columbine, the Media, and the Trench Coat Mafia

by Delancey Place

The media and the Columbine massacre, the mass killing at Columbine High School that stands as the best known example of this horrifying trend. In the hours after the April 20, 1999 massacre, the press began reporting rumors as fact -- that the killers were "targeting" jocks, that they were victims of bullying, that they were Goths, and that they belonged to a gang called the Trench Coat Mafia. These myths, all promulgated in those first few hours after the massacre, were all incorrect, yet still persist as explanations in the popular mind.

from Columbine by Dave Cullen.

The Trench Coat Mafia [explanation] was mythologized because it was colorful, memorable, and fit the existing myth of the school shooter as outcast loner. All the Columbine myths worked that way. And they all sprang to life incredibly fast -- most of the notorious myths took root [in the few hours] before the killers' bodies were found.

We remember Columbine as a pair of outcast Goths from the Trench Coat Mafia snapping and tearing through their high school hunting down jocks to settle a long-running feud. Almost none of that happened. No Goths, no outcasts, nobody snapping. No targets, no feud and no Trench Coat Mafia. Most of those elements existed at Columbine -- which is what gave them such currency. They just had nothing to do with the murders. The lesser myths are equally unsupported: no connection to Marilyn Manson, Hitler's birthday, minorities or Christians. Few people knowledgeable about the case believe those myths anymore. Not reporters, investigators, families of the victims, or their legal teams. And yet most of the public takes them for granted. Why?...

In a school of two thousand, most of the student body didn't even know the boys. Nor had many seen gunfire directly. Initially, most students told reporters they had no idea who attacked them. That changed fast. Most of the two thousand got themselves to a television or kept a constant cell phone vigil with viewers. It took only a few TV mentions for the trench coat connection to take hold. It sounded so obvious. Of course! Trench coats, Trench Coat Mafia! ...

Repetition was the problem. Only a handful of students mentioned the Trench Coat Mafia (TCM) during the first five hours of CNN coverage -- virtually all fed from local news stations. But reporters homed in on the idea. ... Kids 'knew' the TCM was involved because witnesses and news anchors had said so on TV. They confirmed it with friends watching similar reports. ... Pretty soon, most of the students had multiple independent confirmations. They believed they knew the TCM was behind the attack as a fact. From 1:00 to 8:00 pm, the number of students in Clement Park citing the group went from almost none to nearly all. They weren't making it up, they were [simply] repeating it back. ...

The writers assumed kids were informing the media. It was the other way around. Most of the myths were in place by nightfall. By then, it was a given that the killers had been targeting jocks. The target myth was the most insidious, because it went straight to motive. The public believes Columbine was an act of retribution: a desperate reprisal for unspeakable jock-abuse. Like the other myths, it began with a kernel of truth.

Bullying and racism? Those were known threats. Explaining it away was reassuring. By evening, the target theory was dominating most broadcasts; nearly all the major papers featured it. ... Reuters attributed the theory to 'many witnesses' and USA Today to 'students.' ... If students said targeting, that was surely it. Police detectives ... were baffled by the media consensus.

Author: Dave Cullen
Publisher: Twelve an imprint of Grand Central Publishing
Copyright 2009 by Dave Cullen
Pages: 149-152

— Dave Cullen
Delancy Place





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