APRIL 14, 2019
DAVE CULLEN’S 2009 BOOK, Columbine, the definitive study of the 1999 massacre at the high school in Columbine, Colorado, changed the true-crime genre. The author’s meticulous coverage powerfully exposed both the killers’ lives and the inner workings of the 24-hour media cycle. Cullen, one of the first reporters on the scene at the school, suffered secondary PTSD in subsequent years; afterward, he tried to report on mass shootings from a greater distance. Within hours of the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on February 14, 2018, national news producers were contacting him. But it was the boldness of the survivors that would eventually draw him in.
Cullen’s new book, Parkland: Birth of a Movement, is a remarkable coda to Columbine. It focuses not on the killer but on the historic March For Our Lives movement. Through its portrayal of the now-legendary young people who demanded that the United States not look away from such tragedies, Cullen asks us to consider not just our immediate reactions but also how we might want to use our voices for change.
I spoke with Cullen by phone for this interview, which has been edited for length.
HEATHER SCOTT PARTINGTON: It’s become clear from the media coverage that these kids at Parkland expected something to happen and were not surprised when it did. Did you feel as if their upbringing in a post-Columbine era facilitated or in any way affected the movement that they have created?
DAVE CULLEN: Yes, totally. After Columbine, everybody was just in shock and horror. They had no idea that we’d just entered this school shooter era or mass shooter era, and that we had to collectively do some huge thing. But now, these kids were born into it. It was their normal — a completely unacceptable normal — and they were appalled that we adults were just kind of accepting it as normal — Oh, some of you are gonna die. And they were like, What? Some of us are gonna die? And you’re okay with that? So they were ready. And they were just disgusted with the situation and with us for doing nothing.
I learned so much about the media from reading Columbine — about how things play out in a 24-hour news cycle. I think that your choice not to name the killer in this book is really important. What’s your hope for how journalists will cover these types of events in the future?
I was already feeling good that the media was emphasizing the killers less and less. It was definitely getting much better, but we still put a big part of the focus on the killers. Yet it was sort of like, symbolically, their name and image blurred out. But it’s still about them. Up until Parkland, because the kids gave us something different to talk about.
The fascination with mass killers had sort of run its course. They weren’t unique anymore. So we were losing our interest. I think if Parkland had happened 15 years ago, it wouldn’t have worked like it did. But because they arrived at a time when we were kind of bored with these killers and looking for some other story line, when the kids stepped forward, we were like, Oh great. And we kind of pushed the killers aside because we were already ready.
Do you have any advice to people about how to consume media following these types of events? For a while, especially after Columbine, you’ve said that you had to restrict what you took in.
You know, actually, I published something in 2015 in the New Republic called “A Skeptic’s Guide to Media Coverage of Mass Shootings.” But really, the media’s gotten so much better about these things. My advice is to take everything with a grain of salt, especially the first day or two. Be wary of “witnesses” — consider how well they knew this perpetrator, and how recently. And be aware that usually, once we know who the perpetrator is, he’s sort of the most hated man in America, and everyone around him feels like the next most hated people in America. And because of that, the people closest to him, with rare exceptions, including family and friends, usually go to ground and disappear. So the more likely someone is to be on television discussing the killer, the less likely they actually know the person well.
Oh, that’s interesting.
There are exceptions, but they’re fairly rare. Usually the people very close to them, the first few days or weeks, we’re not hearing from them. So be skeptical that way. And even when the governor or sheriff or someone announces some facts, they’re sometimes or often wrong. The media has gotten so much better at this kind of stuff. Also, you don’t have to watch it. It’s okay to turn it off or to turn on something else. And I also highly encourage people, when a media outlet uses a name or image gratuitously, to contact them, to Tweet about them, to tag them. And call them on it —
Hold them accountable?
Yeah. I have a lot of friends in media who, when something goes south, they’re sort of like, I’m getting killed on Twitter. They watch that. They respond. The more people complain, publicly, about them, the more likely they are to scale back and change their behavior. So I really encourage people to call them out. And especially now. Ten years ago, they would have brushed that off. Now, because they are very aware of it, and aware of this movement, it’s much more effective. And there may be a lot of other people calling them on it too. There is power in numbers, so we’ve got the momentum on our side. Let’s keep pushing.
Speaking of momentum: when you were describing the kids’ odyssey in traveling to Tallahassee, the pace really moved along. I thought that was balanced really well with the vignettes that gave background on each of the kids’ lives. I was wondering if you could talk about how you structured the book. I know you wrote some of this as pieces for Vanity Fair. How did it all come together?
The Vanity Fair stuff really helped, less in terms of structure than in just getting words onto the page, getting stuff out there so it wasn’t so daunting later — starting from scratch and just doing all this research, and then thinking, Oh no, I gotta write this. You know, getting words on the page, and also getting edited, being forced to rethink it, doing a lot of rewrites, and refining some of my ideas and thoughts as I went. As far as the structure, I use whiteboards a lot. I have four big whiteboards in my home office, hanging on the walls, and I can move them around. And then I’ve got a stack of whiteboards that are a little more than legal-sized that I can hold in my lap. I can try things out.
Around May 1, I transferred it all onto the wall and that made it more permanent. I printed out the major headings and the potential chapter titles so it would be cleaner, and I used a picture for each potential chapter so it was like right to the side of my desk, on the wall, at a glance, the structure of the book. At that point, I changed it a few times, but then I sort of left it because I got tired of changing it. But now it’s kind of useful, because it’s still on the wall, and I can see how the process developed. And what I have is four columns for the major parts of the book.
So it was like arranging a chronology, and thinking of major chunks. The first book on Columbine is sort of like — the columns represent the major milestones, which are whole story lines themselves. For me, for this new book, it was getting started, the genesis — just that first week or so — was crucial. Like, How did this happen? would be a very small question, and then the big push to the students’ march. I was still thinking in terms of that being the biggest part of the whole thing. I was sort of playing it on faith that an actual story — with a beginning, middle, and end — would develop and I would find it as it happened. As things turned out, the march was obviously very important, but I think the stuff that happened after that is more important. The march was just phase one, and there was more to the story.
When I talked to the woman who interviewed me for Columbia Journalism Review, she said, You know, it’s sort of organized chronologically, but I don’t think it really is. It’s more like thematic chapters — and that sort of presented itself. Because I put things in chronological order for the most part, but then I just sort of found themes that were going on, either in the life of one kid or more — like David Hogg’s exhaustion, in those early chapters — and then I sort of organized things around that. Sometimes the chapter titles — they were working titles as I went — really helped me figure out what something is about, and how I wanted to focus it.
I went back very late in the game, and wrote the March For Our Lives section, especially describing Emma González — that was one that I left for last because of intimidation. I was like — she was so powerful, the day was so magical to be there, how could I ever do it justice? I can’t — I’m not a good enough writer to capture this, and so I’m afraid. And so I was putting that one off. And I thought I could do it, but then I realized, Oh, yeah, it’s the part about her, and how I’m battling PTSD. Even though it’s not about her, particularly, I’m bringing in those ideas right here. That’s the moment where I cut right to the PTSD. That’s where I’m going to put that chapter. And so it kind of organically fit, because my editor was like, Yeah, a PTSD chapter could be good and useful, it just can’t feel like, you know, we interrupt this story for, you know —
A brief PSA on PTSD?
Yeah, you know, a little medical journal essay, or a Wikipedia page, or something. And it’s gotta be in the right voice, and be about these kids, and it was like, Yeah, how am I gonna do that? It needed to feel really natural going into that topic next, so the reader’s going to be almost thinking, Oh, good, I was hoping you were gonna explain a little more about that.
Some of the stuff on John Della Volpe [the director of Polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics], I wasn’t sure how or where to put it. His views on the politics of this and what it meant, I had it sort of broken up in different places, and then I’m like, No, I’m just gonna do a chapter called “Harvard.” Do a mini-chapter, just put it right there when it happens and gather all that stuff in one place.
I had a grad school prof who called it a “trellis” — and I’ve really used that imagery, probably because I love gardening. So you set up the trellis, and you just sort of hang the details, and you change it up as you go. But once you have half or three-quarters of it all in place, in some place, then you can see it and you can start shuffling things around or adding to them, and that’s what I do.
I think an important part of the book is how comfortable the kids were with creating content online and using new media. Are all kids this proficient at creating content? Or do you think that these particular kids were a high-end set of users?
I would say, yes, these kids are very high-end. I have two basic takes on this. First, this generation is so much more media-savvy than any before it. So they’re all doing stories on Instagram and Snapchat, and then everybody counts their freakin’ “likes.” They’re learning in real time how to get better at this and how to appeal to an audience — things that most of us never would do in our lives. Even media people only start learning to do this in college or on the job. So it’s much more built in and instinctive for kids today, which means they will probably be better than most of us will ever get.
But in every generation — and this is my second point — there are people who are sort of like naturals at this, who are creative and born to do it, who would probably have ended up in radio or TV, on stage or screen. And that’s who those kids are — you know, born with natural talent. And I think several of them would have been generational stars in any case. For example, I think there’s only one or two Emma Gonzálezes per generation. She’s just singular. So, to answer your question — it’s sort of both things you said. Everyone in that generation is way ahead of us, but then this is sort of the cream of the crop of that generation.
You reference the Women’s March as a sort of upper-end template for the March For Our Lives. Do you think its success was related to the times we’re living in now? Or do you think it was more about the people who were organizing it?
Both. I think that, for almost all movements in the history of humankind, the answer would be both. With rare exceptions. It’s very, very hard to fight the course of history. And I think almost all powerful movements are a combination of both. Sort of like the right person at the right time. The tinder has to be there sort of ready to get lit, and then the right person has to be there to light it. I guess I’m sort of mixing my metaphors, to say — to light that torch, and then to carry it. And John Della Volpe really makes this point — that this was the moment.
The fact that there was something called “The Resistance” tells you everything. That title, “The Resistance,” says two things: there’s such anger and people want to do something about the situation, number one, and number two, not knowing what to do or how to do it. If there was a positive agenda, it would have a different name. But instead, it’s just “The Resistance” — something you’re against. But we don’t know what yet, or we haven’t agreed on that. Not that gun safety was going to be the one thing that emerged at that moment, but it was one of the plausible things that could emerge. The one of many that it could have been.
And so the kids suddenly appeared in the middle of an issue we were beyond angry and frustrated about. People on both sides, too. But there was a hunger for something, embodied by these two marches, the two largest in American history, wanting some change, but again not being sure what that would be. These kids stepped forward at just the right moment, and they’re like, Well, here. They had a cause, and they were champions together, and they weren’t taking no for an answer. And they took off, and we said, Wow, okay we’ll follow.
So it was both. If the timing of it had been wrong, if they were fighting history, it would have been rough. And if the leader had been some charisma-free, problematic person who wasn’t a very good spokesperson, that also would have floundered. But the combination is what it’s all about.
I mean, you know, Martin Luther King, this amazing person, comes along at a time when we’ve been fighting for a while, pushing for civil rights, decades of building steam, and then the right man steps forward at the right time and takes it much further than perhaps it would have gone in another generation. These kids are the Martin Luther Kings of their generation.