MEDIA WATCH: Media plays host to blame game in wake of Great White fire

The February 20 blaze that leveled The Station nightclub in Rhode Island was the country's fourth-worst nightclub fire, claiming 97 victims and injuring 200 others. The tragedy occurred when the pyrotechnics of rock group Great White caught the stage on fire, and the entire wooden building was consumed in flames in just two to three minutes. The sound manager at The Station told the Boston Herald (February 25) that the flames "spread at a geometric rate. That fire was doubling in size about every three seconds."

The February 20 blaze that leveled The Station nightclub in Rhode Island was the country's fourth-worst nightclub fire, claiming 97 victims and injuring 200 others. The tragedy occurred when the pyrotechnics of rock group Great White caught the stage on fire, and the entire wooden building was consumed in flames in just two to three minutes. The sound manager at The Station told the Boston Herald (February 25) that the flames "spread at a geometric rate. That fire was doubling in size about every three seconds."

In the aftermath of the fire, media coverage of the story has focused on who is to blame for the catastrophe. Reporters have tried to answer the question; however, as CBS News (February 24) reported, "Who's to blame depends on who you ask." The club owners have steadfastly insisted that the band neither asked for nor received permission to use pyrotechnics. In the sample of coverage analyzed by Media Watch, the media has covered the owners' story slightly more often than the band's version of events. However, the band has insisted just as adamantly that it did have verbal permission from the owner, that it has witnesses to this, and that one of the owners was in the building as the band was setting up the stage for the evening's performance. Interestingly, though, when it comes to third parties voicing support for the two parties' claims, the media more often aired support for Great White, indicating that it was the club that had been negligent. This support came in the form of statements and video supplied by a number of other bands that they had used pyrotechnics at The Station pretty regularly, and that the owners were well aware of it. Support for The Station's claims that Great White had been reckless came in the form of complaints from other club owners who spoke up that Great White had unexpectedly used pyrotechnics onstage at other clubs during this same tour. It also appears that the first few days after the fire saw more criticism of Great White, but then things began to turn around as other bands began to draw attention to past use of pyrotechnics at The Station. Rhode Island's attorney general praised the band for cooperating, but lamented that the owners have not. The media also reported that even if the owners had given the band permission to use pyrotechnics in the club, The Station has never had a state license to allow pyrotechnics use. And there were several suggestions that the Great White tour crew most likely did not have a pyrotechnics technician licensed by the state of Rhode Island. Reporting also focused on the soundproofing foam that the club had installed, with preliminary indications being that the insulation at the club was highly flammable. In discussions of liability, Paula Zahn on CNN (February 24) suggested that the manufacturer of the soundproofing could be a target for lawyers. There were several suggestions in the coverage that there was plenty of blame to go around - not simply a black-and-white case of either the band or club being at fault. However the guilt is assigned, the tragedy will surely cause club owners and bands to redouble their commitment to safety.
  • Evaluation and analysis by CARMA International. Media Watch can be found at www.carma.com.

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