'So this is the new journalism?'

| December 16, 1999
Let's call this one "The Lousy Columnist." On Dec. 1, Denver Rocky Mountain News columnist Bill Johnson wrote about a cop by the name of Trooper Mitchell Brown, who had, Johnson claimed, worked for the Virginia state police department. Johnson claimed that Trooper Brown had written an essay titled "The Lousy Cop," a tongue-in-cheek swipe at people who criticize police officers.

Johnson reprinted "The Lousy Cop" in his column and, at the end, declared it to be a "dandy piece of prose. Quite haunting, too," since Trooper Brown was killed in the line of duty two months after he wrote it, Johnson claimed.

Now, most daily newspaper columnists make good money. Editors usually prefer that they get their facts right. Apparently, those rules don't extend to Johnson, who didn't even bother to pick up the phone, call Virginia and confirm that Trooper Brown, in fact, existed. Turns out he doesn't exist and never did. In truth, "The Lousy Cop" was an essay that has been making its way around cyberspace.

So did Johnson have the fortitude to apologize to his readers for misleading them with bad information? Of course not. Instead, in a weasel-y subsequent column that appeared on Dec. 3, Johnson claimed, "I gotta eat a little crow this morning." Then he went on to defend himself -- and his inaccuracies -- explaining: "I didn't believe it mattered. ... 'The Lousy Cop' is a darn good piece of writing. ... Whoever wrote it should be commended. ... It does make you stop and think."

Yes, it certainly does make us stop and think. But not in the way Johnson intended. As an aside, in his second column, Johnson had changed the timing of the imaginary trooper's death to two weeks -- not months -- after he had supposedly written the essay. Johnson didn't explain that little detail. But he clearly was unperturbed about the whole flap.

"And you know, crow -- once you get past the feathers -- isn't really such a bad dish," he concluded.

That arrogant retort apparently satisfied Johnson's editors, as the columnist is still churning out his columns. But the dish didn't settle as well with reader Hutch Paulson, who complained in a Dec. 10 letter, "It's bad enough that columnist Bill Johnson can't be bothered with checking the facts.

"Now he informs us that 'it didn't really matter' that Trooper Mitchell Brown of the Virginia state police is, in fact, a fictional character. So, this is the new journalism? Factual accuracy doesn't really matter? From now on, I will keep this in mind while reading the News."

Speaking of newspaper columnists, Jerome Davis has been invited back to the new G after he was canned when they brought Rosemary Harris back to town.

Davis, who is black, was hired to write a biweekly column after Harris, who is black, left the paper five months ago to write a column for the Norfolk, Va., Virginian-Pilot.

But after writing about herself, Michael Jackson, her career, Tupac Shakur, her hats, Las Vegas, her grandmother, her daughter and beauty pageants for the Virginian-Pilot, Harris decided she didn't much like Norfolk (and some Norfolk folks didn't think too much of her either). So editor Steve Smith offered Harris her old job back.

One black columnist was apparently the limit over at the G, and they abruptly -- over the phone -- told Davis he was out.

Davis said they made no bones that he was being dismissed because of Harris' return. But apparently there was enough public outcry over Davis' discharge that this week the paper reversed itself and brought him back.

And with much attendant drama, the Denver newspapers continue to ask us: When will it all end?

Eight months after the rampage, both Denver dailies are continuing to bombard us with repetitive hand-wringing and overwritten pieces about Columbine.

On Sunday, the News launched the first segment of its latest three-part "special report," titled "Inside the Columbine Investigation."

The first piece was at times plain weird, especially when reporters Dan Luzzader and Kevin Vaughan recounted a grandfatherly Jefferson County District Attorney Dave Thomas talking to the bodies of the dead students in the library after they were murdered, and telling them not to worry: "Everything is going to be all right."

Monday's piece didn't offer a whole lot more insight, other than that Attorney General Janet Reno took naps in a converted conference room next to Thomas' office and was given juice and food.

Of course, both papers have claimed that the "healing has begun" since the day after the deadly rampage occurred April 20. After the Columbine Rebels won the state football championship early this month, The Denver Post took the opportunity to report a new angle to the shootings. "Team Triumphs After Tragedy" screamed the front-page headline.

Thanks to the nonstop media coverage, almost everyone knows that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed because of their real and perceived ostracism by jocks and popular kids. The mainstream press apparently didn't want to touch that potential live wire, though.

Unlike reporters, however, some readers couldn't let the irony pass without comment.

Reader L.L. Holland was appalled and disgusted by the media spotlight.

"Especially revolting to me was the way in which the media put the spotlight on the football players," Holland wrote in a Dec. 13 letter to the editor. "Why put these jocks on a higher pedestal than they already are? They are no more special than those students who are outstanding in science and math."

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