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The editor whose paper covered the Kent State shootings looks back 50 years

  • "When Truth Mattered" by Robert Giles. (Mission Point Press/TNS) Mission Point Press

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Published: 5/22/2020 9:47:35 AM
Modified: 5/22/2020 9:47:23 AM

In May 1970, I was nearly 7 years old. My dad was 30 and a reporter at the Akron Beacon Journal newspaper that was covering the Vietnam War protests at Kent State University.

I have absolutely no recollection of him leaving our house in Cuyahoga Falls and going to nearby Kent, where on the weekend of May 1-3, student protests about President Richard Nixon’s continuation of the war, by invading Cambodia, had inflamed to the point that the Ohio National Guard was called in. I do know from talking with Dad later that he was there on Monday, May 4, when Guardsmen fired at least 61 shots on protestors and killed four students and wounded nine.

My father, who died in December 2016, never talked much about Kent State. He did write about it again, briefly, on the 30th anniversary, for the Dayton Daily News, which had just hired him in 1970. So it was his last week in Akron when his editors there sent him to spend Monday on the Kent State campus.

Dad recounted that, despite that weekend’s unrest, the mood that balmy morning was “relaxed, almost jovial” as he mingled with students and soldiers. Then everything turned. He only heard the shots. He recalled the sadness as the rain fell on campus that night, and eating an egg salad sandwich with a cup of coffee from a Red Cross trailer, and touching the metal sculpture’s fresh bullet hole.

I welcomed a chance to learn a little more about his involvement in a new book, When Truth Mattered: The Kent State Shootings 50 Years Later. One of his former colleagues, still in Akron, was kind to give me a heads-up that this book was just published and my dad is in it. The book is written by the Beacon Journal managing editor, Robert Giles, who ran the show that May day, because his own boss had left on a foreign trip and left him in charge with a, “Don’t screw it up.”

Mr. Giles didn’t, and he doesn’t with this detailed and compelling retelling not expressly of what happened, but of how journalists covered what happened and got it right.

Mountains have been written since about the Kent State shootings, which to this day spark a wide, even wild range of passionate opinions. But as Mr. Giles, now retired in Traverse City, Mich., stresses after a storied journalism career he finished as curator of Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation – the truth is what mattered and matters still – now maybe more than ever.

Decades later, he’s rightfully proud about how his newspaper’s on-deadline accounts on that day and those that followed, were never disputed, and in fact, helped the rest of the country sort out the bigger truths of this national tragedy.

You don’t need to be a newspaperman from a newspaper family to appreciate the old-school shoe leather, all-hands effort and journalism luck that went into a medium-sized newspaper being able to report and publish, within hours, that there were four dead, all students – “two boys and two girls” – with three of their names, including Allison Krause of Churchill, Pa. Some of those details came from a new KSU graduate sneaking into the hospital where most victims were taken. Later a reporter snuck peeks and memorized passages of a blockbuster FBI report – in pursuit of nothing more than the truth, which from the beginning, was being questioned and manipulated.

Other outlets had reported Guardsmen were killed, and the Guard commander himself said at a news conference that night that his men’s shots had been preceded by a single shot that some claimed was from a protester or other “sniper.” My dad covered that news conference and had a story, bylined Robert Batz, on Page 2 the next day that began, “Speaking slowly and choosing his words carefully, Brig. Gen. Robert Canterbury of the Ohio National Guard told newsmen that Guardsmen were not ordered to fire on students Monday afternoon at Kent State University.”

The Beacon Journal went to great lengths to get to the truth of whether that first shot was ever fired and by whom, going so far as to have the campus sculpture’s maker help them procure a similar piece of steel for a shooting test in a farm field. It showed that the hole in the sculpture was from a bullet fired from where the Guardsmen were, not from where the students were.

In a chapter about shots of a different kind, titled “Images,” Mr. Giles tells a how and why KSU journalism student John Filo drove his VW Beetle all the way home to New Kensington to file to the Associated Press his iconic photo of Mary Ann Vecchio raising her arms beside the body of Jeff Miller: “Her mouth opened in a scream that we can still hear.”

The 353-page book includes regrets and an admissions of a mistake on Mr. Giles’ part, as well as ample photos, drawings and diagrams. He concludes with a “toolbox” of lessons for today, including, “Be wary of rumors, misinformation, and disinformation,” noting, “Guard commanders apparently were convinced that a sniper had fired at their troops. This was their truth. For a few days, this rationale was widely accepted and used to deflect criticism of them while focusing fault instead on the demonstrators.”

How the journalists did their jobs without cell phones (there was a “telephone car,” but keeping an open landline was key) and the internet is fascinating history, but part of the evergreen truth that Mr. Giles is telling is how, whatever the time period, real journalism requires real resources. The number of people who covered Kent State on that May 4 is about equal to the total number of journalists now working at The Akron Beacon Journal, and it’s holding its own compared to many newspapers that haven’t already disappeared. In addition to economic threats, as Mr. Giles writes, “We are living in a period marred by attacks on press independence and disbelief in press freedom.”

Robert Batz isn’t one of Mr. Giles’ “key” journalists of May 4, 1970, but I’m proud that he was a contributor to the coverage that won the Beacon Journal staff the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for Local General or Spot News Reporting. The real prize: A lot of what we still know about May 4, 1970, is because he and his colleagues were there, amid the bullets and the rain, downing egg salad sandwiches and coffee, asking the hard questions and working hard to get “the best available version of the truth.”




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