Local woman in the audience for unaired Oprah show

The shootings at Columbine High School shocked the nation.

As the tenth anniversary approached, talk show host Oprah Winfrey taped, but did not air, a program about the aftermath of April 20, 1999.

The Show: “10 Years Later: The Truth About Columbine” was pre-taped but not aired when it was scheduled. Citing too much focus on the killers, Winfrey pulled the show, a possibly historic move that has a lot of people talking. 

Granville resident Debi Stanton Berke happened to be in Chicago and was in the studio when the as-yet unaired episode was shot.

What started out as a fun outing got really exciting really quickly, Berke said.

“I went on April14, it was a trip to see college friend Donna, a really quick trip,” she said. “This was just another Donna-and-I-keeping-in-touch thing and then she called me and said ‘Oh my god, wear something bright, you’re not going to believe what happened but I got tickets to Oprah!’” Berke said.

The idea behind wearing something bright is to be able to be seen on television and noticed in the crowd, she said.

Excited about the prospect of sitting in on the talk show with such hard-to-get tickets Berke said the two wondered aloud what sort of prize the audience members might get that day.

Winfrey typically places some sort of gift under the chairs of studio audience members, even giving away cars at a taping.

“It was really going to be exciting, we did not know who was going to be on,” she said. Audience members do not know the subject of the show until just before taping, Berke said.

The crowd of about 250 found out just moments before going out to the soundstage what the subject of their show would be for the day. The subject of the taping surprised them.


Getting into the show

Berke said the building where the shows are taped is a modest structure on Chicago’s south side.

“Oprah wanted it that way,” she said, “Even though she’s got a gazillion dollars she didn’t want a fancy building; that’s how she is.”

Audience members went through security, including being searched, and they had to leave jackets behind before being taken to a ‘holding room’ to await going out to the studio. After waiting for a short time, the group was led into the studio and interacted with a warm up person who coached them on how to react when the show began and asked them general questions to get their energy levels up.

“They get the studio audience hyped-up,” she said.

“Actually I got up at one point because they asked if anyone was in Chicago doing anything fun, other than the show, and I go up and said I’m here seeing my college roommate,” she said. The discussion centered on friendship for a bit as taping time neared. “We were all very excited,” she said.

When Winfrey did come out, it was not what Berke said she had expected. The host was not brightly dressed, not bubbly and did not address the audience.

“I think it was something gray (what she wore), she was not dressed up,” she said. 

Berke said the audience was told to applaud vigorously when the host came out, “and so we did, but that was the last of (the applause).”

Winfrey never interacted with the audience, something that seemed unusual to the college friends as they watched.

“I don’t know what I expected, but I expected audience participation,” she said. “At the end of the taping, they had to prompt us to clap,” she said.

No one knew what to do after the hour and a half they had just experienced. The audience had to be prompted to clap at the end of the show and the subdued, solemn vibe continued.

“We didn’t know what to do. How do you react to something that has taken you over emotionally like that?” she said.

Although she said she could not remember exactly what Oprah said, she recalled simply being dismissed by the host – something to the effect of ‘You can all go now’.

The guests for the show were the an author who had spent ten years writing the book “Columbine” about the shootings, Dave Cullen; the local sheriff’s task force leader, Kate Battan; FBI special agent Dwayne Fuselier and the principal of the high school Frank DeAngelis.

Berke said just one of the many things that struck her that day was the task force head who spread out the photos of those killed every day for a year to look at them and how much impact the shootings had on her.

The principal also spoke on a live feed from the school, Berke said.

DeAngelis had promised each of the students in the school that he would remain at the school and be there for them until they graduated.

“He didn’t want Columbine to be remembered for that tragedy,” she said.

Berke said many of the facts revealed during the show’s taping go against media reports from the initial days and hours after the shootings and quite simply change the way many would look at it.

The police, for example, did not know the events had already unfolded long before they entered the school that day; the shootings were over in a matter of moments. The two killers, Berke said she doesn’t like to use the word to describe them but concedes there are few other ways to describe them, were not the picked-on students out for revenge, but had friends and spent a year planning their assault on the school.

“They did have friends, that was a fallacy (that they were loners) they just did a good job of covering it up,” she said.

The pair responsible, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, failed in their attempt to become more infamous than Timothy McVey when all of their homemade explosives failed to detonate.

“Their whole year of planning didn’t happen, they were failures; they wanted to go out like –whatever their sick minds were thinking – they wanted to go out as big stars or whatever but they went out as failures, which they were,” she said. “They were psychopath and follower, sick minds and they were failures.”

“In my mind it didn’t show them as anything but what they were – as two sick individuals,” Berke said. “We weren’t focusing on anything but what they were – as two people who did a horrible thing…I think people were entitled to see this,” she said.

Each of the guests had a portion of the show, she said. However, Winfrey did not draw the audience into the show.

“She was very subdued during this whole thing,” she said.


The aftermath

Berke said she saw the episode as something more than just about the Columbine killers.

“Oprah said she cancelled this show because it was a focus on the killers, it was much more than that. It was am emotional show, showing the impact on the people who investigated this tragedy and also it showed the impact…or the facts that they came up with afterwards that I think the public had a right to know,” Berke said.

Here is where Berke differs from many in the ‘Oprah nation’.

An online poll posted on the New York Daily News website along with word of the show’s cancellation, with the short statement provided as reason for canceling the show, asked voters simply if Oprah did the right thing in pulling the show.

The overwhelming majority said ‘yes’ she had, more than 70 percent; without knowing what only 250 other people in the country, such as Berke, knew.

Berke said she wonders what the people who answered ‘yes’ could be thinking. Not wanting to relive the tragedy, perhaps? The results of that poll left her with questions.

“I was shocked (by the results). Does she have that much of an influence over the way that people think?” she wondered. “They hadn’t seen it and she pulled it and they agreed with her and I’m sure that’s nationwide.”

“She pulled it
because she thought it was a focus on the killers. Well, I think people like us have the right to see that and see how things can be changed so it won’t happen again,” she said.

On the show’s website ‘community’ comments posted seemed to favor the airing of the show in favor of the same reasons Berke cites.  

“I saw much more than just a focus on the killers,” she said, “I saw the human emotion that (the task force commander) went through, how personally that affected her and that there were blunders during the investigation. It was heartwarming at times.”

“The public has the right to know and I disagree with Oprah for pulling that,” she said. “I don’t understand, I really don’t because I’ve seen a lot more gruesome things (on the show),” she said.  

The episode was shocking, certainly, and saddening.

“I looked at my friend afterward and said ‘I’ve never been more depressed in my life,’” she said. “The show was really very, very sad because it was like reliving a national tragedy.”

“I walked away saying it was very depressing – but it was also very enlightening,” Berke said. “It showed what they learned since then and what other people can take from this.”

Portions of the show, typically going into and out of commercials, were memorials to the victims, each a heart-wrenching tribute to the 13 people murdered that day.

“It was terribly emotional,” she said.

Berke said one of the lessons she took away from the episode was this:

“Live every day to the fullest. It sounds to cliché but this shows you that life is short,” she said.




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