For the 88th episode of the Journalism History podcast, hosted by Teri Finneman, author Bob Giles discusses his book, When Truth Mattered: The Kent State Shootings 50 Years Later, and what it was like to be an editor in charge of that coverage in 1970.
Bob Giles: There’s been a lot of courageous journalism that has shaped the public’s view of things and became the sort of historical record.
Teri Finneman: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told. I’m Teri Finneman and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports media.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Teri Finneman: And together we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Transcripts of the show are available at journalism-history.org/podcast. This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History.
13 seconds of gunfire. More than 50 years after the campus shootings, the tragedy at Kent State and its legacy in the telling of the Vietnam War still reverberates. From August 1969 to August 1970, there were over 9,000 protests on college campuses opposing the draft and the Vietnam War, but it was May 4, 1970, that would go down in infamy.
On that day, members of the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four college students and wounded nine others protesting the war, specifically the bombing of Cambodia and the Guardsmen’s presence on campus. The Akron Beacon Journal would win a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage, which was led by Bob Giles, the managing editor in charge of the newsroom that day. In his book, When Truth Mattered, Giles writes about how the newspaper’s reporting created an enduring –
truthful narrative of an American tragedy. Bob, welcome to the show. After 50 years, why did you want to write this book? Why did you want to return to that day in 1970 and retell its story?
Bob Giles: Yeah, the Kent State story is in fact one of the most important stories of my long newspaper career. I’ve carried a memory of every aspects of it, you know, for a long time, nearly 50 years. I never thought writing about it until fairly recently, well, 2018. I would often tell stories about how my newspaper, the Akron Beacon Journal, covered Kent State, how we won the Pulitzer Prize for our work and people were fascinated by it. And finally I was having a dinner with a couple of local authors in Traverse City and was spinning awesome stories, and they said, “You know, you really have to tell this story.
It’s a wonderful journalism story.” And so I started to think seriously about that. I was sort of feeling like they were coaxing me to take and take, try my hand at it. So I started to look into it and realized that I had read many of the Kent State books that had been written since 1970, but nobody had told the story of the truth telling that my newspaper succeeded in. Uh, and as I looked into it, I also discovered that many of the, many of the reporters on my team were gone. They were passed off, passed on. And I wanted to memorialize them. I want people to know who they were and to remember them. So that was really a, a great motivation in, in my decision to try to write this book.
It’s a story about journalism wrapped into the details of this terrible tragedy on May 4, 1970 when the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four students and, and wounded nine others.
Teri Finneman: So at the time of the Kent State shootings, you’d been with the Akron Beacon Journal about a dozen years. You were managing editor, but found yourself in charge of the newsroom that day by the sheer coincidence that the top editor was out of town. What’s interesting to me is that May 4 wasn’t a surprise to you. Days earlier you knew trouble was possible on campus. So give us some of the context of what had been going on locally in the weeks and months before that made you fear that serious trouble was looming on campus.
Bob Giles: You know, there had been a series of events on the Kent State campus in previous years.
In 1968 the Oakland, California, police came to town to recruit, and the students protested against their appearance. And then a year later, Students for a Democratic Society had a protest demanding the end of ROTC. And we had covered each of these events and smaller ones subsequently protesting the Vietnam War very carefully. I had a city or a state editor named Pat Englehart who was kind of a gruff, old-school journalist editor, and he was just obsessed with covering every — staying on top of that story, dealing with all the issues, making sure that we had great sourcing and that we were on top of everything. And so, and he had, you know, an exhaustible source of, a collection of information and, and data –
and at this, during this period of time, ’68, ’69, and into ’70, there were a lot of campus demonstrations against the war at Harvard, Columbia, Ohio State, and so on. We covered all of these. So and, and the trigger for this story and this terrible event was a speech that President Nixon gave on April 30 – that was the Thursday night before May 4 – in which he announced that he was sending troops into Cambodia, and that set off a number of events, demonstrations, riotous activities on the Kent State campus over that weekend. Uh, the first action was on Friday afternoon when about a thousand students gathered on the Commons –
a gathering place for students on the Kent State campus, and they had ripped a page out of the, a textbook with the U.S. Constitution on it, and they dug a hole, they buried it, and they said the Constitution is dead. President Nixon violated it by sending troops into Cambodia, into another country, without getting approval of Congress.
So then Friday night in downtown Kent, it was sort of a celebratory mood. It was the end of the, of the academic term. Graduation was looming, and, and, and was a typical time for students to go down and drink in the bars and have a good time. But because of the burial of the Constitution on Friday afternoon and the symbolic nature of it –
it kinda spooked the city officials. And the mayor sent the police into the bars to shut them down, so this meant that there were several hundred kids out on the street, some of them partially inebriated and some of them carrying beer bottles with them and they started to do some damage. They threw the beer bottles through windows of the bars, a bank, and so on, and then the mayor further exhibiting his being spooked called the — called Columbus, the governor’s office, Jim Rhodes, and he asked for the Ohio National Guard. There were two mistakes that were made to sort of set, begin to set the table for the violence that would occur on Monday. On Saturday night the students organized a rally –
around the old ROTC building. These were wooden barracks that were built in the late ’40s, and they eventually, students eventually set them on fire and they burned down.
When the fire department came, the students cut the firehoses so the buildings just were gonna burn down. So then the mayor declared an emergency, a state of emergency, and he put in place a curfew that you know, dusted on and, and that again tightened the tension between the city and, and the campus. Meanwhile the gov-, or the president of the university, Bob White, had gone off to Iowa for an educational meeting, and nobody was in, left in charge of the campus.
And so on Sunday, Governor Rhodes shows up on campus and he tours the — the remains of the ROTC building. He has a press conference, and he calls the students the worst things since the Nazi Brownshirts and the worst kind of people we have in this country, and he said to, to the announcement that the students were organizing a rally at noon on Monday against the war, Monday, May the 4th, and he said he would not permit any assembly of students, peaceful or otherwise. And some reporter said, “Well, what do you, what’s, what’s your definition of an assembly?” And he said, the governor said, offhand, “Well, two students walking together on campus.” So the mood was set uh, for a confrontation on, on Monday. Um, we did not in our newsroom, we did not –
anticipate any violence, but we were prepared to cover what had happened, what was going to happen on, on Monday when that rally began to take shape.
Teri Finneman: Yeah, so let’s talk about that day, May 4. You arrived at work at 7 a.m. that day, and at 12:24 p.m. Guardsmen on the campus opened fire resulting in four dead and nine wounded. This I think is a really important section in your book. You write that on May 4, 1970, the Beacon Journal’s battle to tell the truth began almost immediately after the shots were fired by National Guardsmen into a mass of Kent State students. It was immediately known that there had been deaths, but the initial report was that the deaths were of Guardsmen based on a misunderstanding by a United Press International reporter. That wrong information was circulated instantly throughout the nation –
by other newspapers, but at the Beacon Journal your reporter got it right and said students had been killed. You note that editors went with your own reporter’s version of the truth. So tell us more about the behind-the-scenes decision you had with a major outlet like UPI running one thing and needing to believe that your reporter was right instead.
Bob Giles: Our reporter was a young student, Jeff Sallot. He — for four years, he had been a journalism student, and he had worked for us as a stringer covering the campus in a variety of ways, and he was deeply sourced on the campus and we assigned him to — just to observe the, the rally on, on Monday, May the 4th. So Jeff knew the campus. He knew the, the dynamics. He knew he needed to have a good vantage point and a telephone –
to cover that rally, the developing rally, because it was gonna take place on a — on a major deadline for our afternoon edition. Uh, and so we knew that he found himself, he knew to go into the Journalism School building, Taylor Hall, where he had been a student. He went into the dean’s office and found the secretary, Margaret Brown, and said, “Can I use your telephone?” And so he called Pat Englehart and the state desk and said, “I’m — I want you to know that I have a good vantage point where I can see the developing rally and the — how the National Guard is beginning to push the students away and, and I also have an open phone line,” and Englehart said, “Great. Keep the phone line open.” And so he –
he turned to Ms. Brown and said, “Will you keep the line open for us, keep the phone line open?” She said, “Yes, I would be happy to do that.” So we knew that Jeff was in a place where he could see a lot and could watch the developing action as the Guard began to move up the Commons, this gathering place and push the students over a hill and back down toward what was a fence around the football practice field, and so when the shooting occurred and we began to get the, the UPI report that said four killed at Kent State, two students and two Guardsmen, and we had Jeff Sallot’s report that the dead were all students. So we had –
we had those conflicting reports. Uh, one of the things that persuaded us we should go with, with Jeff’s report was first that he was in a very good position to observe, and second that the UPI did not have a regular reporter on the Kent State campus. And so the reporter who came there that morning to cover the rally naturally went to the National Guard headquarters, which was a long distance from where the shooting took place. And his information was based on overhearing a telephone conversation between a couple of Guard officials who said, “We’ve got two dead here. We need an ambulance.” And, and the UPI reporter made an assumption – a terrible thing for a reporter to do –
but he assumed that they meant two dead Guardsmen, and that was the story he filed: two dead Guardsmen, two dead students. And in those days, UPI was a very important part of the network of wire services for small afternoon newspapers and local radio stations, and so that information quickly went out on the UPI wire.
And, and course it came back in our newsroom ’cause we had the UPI wire. We also had the AP wire. And, and so we were able to make the decision – uh, you know, I made the decision that said let’s go with our reporter. He’s there. He has the experience. He’s seen it. So we went with the young college student over the veteran –
UPI reporter, and as it turned out we were right. And, and I knew that as I became more and more certain that we had made the right decision, I knew that it was going to be a — I feared that the listeners and the readers and the listeners on the radio would come to believe that the earlier rumors of snipers being on the campus and radicals being the cause of the trouble might become part of the, of the belief because of the breadth of UPI wire service and the fact that this this misinformation was being was being spread around. Our newspaper was gonna be delivered later that afternoon but, um – and the AP picked up our story –
that four dead students and nine wounded. But it was gonna take some time for that to overcome the error that the UPI made, and interestingly enough the local newspaper in Kent, the Kent Record-Courier, put a banner headline on their page one that afternoon, which said four killed at Kent State: two Guardsmen, two students. And they ran that whole edition and delivered it, and then had to come back and replate for a later edition with the correct information once they discovered the nature of the UPI, the UPI error.
Teri Finneman: Wow, so let’s talk a little more about what it was like for you to be running the, the newsroom that day. You know, people nowadays aren’t as familiar with the concept of afternoon papers, but at the time, as, as you’ve mentioned, you had a midday deadline and virtually no time to turn this major story to get it on the printing press.
So what was all going on in the newsroom?
Bob Giles: Well, it was — it would appear to a visitor to be chaotic. There was a lot of shouting, a lot of movement. People were arguing about what the headline should say. Uh, but it was a — we were really disciplined because, at the Beacon Journal, we were, as an afternoon newspaper, we ran a lot of breaking stories that went to press at, you know, 1:00 for one edition and 2:00 for another edition, and then we had a final edition at 4:00, which carried all of the final stock prices of the day. That was very traditional for afternoon newspapers. You printed a late stock edition that went out to the newsstands around town and, you know, people who were interested in stock prices, that was really the only way for them in that — in those days to get a fresh –
read on how the stock market did. So we were used to handling breaking stories and, and so, you know, as I observed and as I recall what was going on, once we made the decision to go with the four dead students, everybody was turned to their task.
They were disciplined. They were clearheaded. And we got — we were only 30 minutes late. We held the presses for 30 minutes to get the first edition in with the, with the breaking news of the tragedy at Kent State. Kent State was only 12 miles from our newsroom, and it was in fact a local newspaper, a local news story for us. So a visitor would have said, “Wow, this is pretty chaotic,” but people knew their task and they were skilled at working fast, and that was one of the natures –
of afternoon journalism, newspaper journalism in, in those days. And, you know, many more papers had afternoon editions in those days than morning editions. And the transformation from afternoon to morning papers was just beginning. But we were — we were really prepared to do it. We didn’t anticipate, of course, that there was gonna be violence. We were prepared just for a confrontation of some kind. But we also — we knew that the, that the students felt comfortable on their own campus. They felt safe that they could express their First Amendment right for, for speech against the war, for redress of grievances against the government, and that –
the First Amendment was their — was their ally in this regard. And, and as the time approached on Monday for the rally to take place, the students were deeply resentful of the presence of the Ohio National Guard on their campus. This was their turf and they, and they, they believed they could be safe in expressing their anger against the war secondarily against the military draft and other things that were, were in the news of the day.
They could do it safely and the idea that a group of armed soldiers were in their midst and would eventually shoot their combat weapons, the M1 rifles, into students was totally unbelievable. Nobody anticipated that. But when it happened, we were ready, and the fact that we had –
the open phone line in the dean’s office of the journalism school was a — it was a huge advantage to us because very soon after the shootings, people — the word started to get around through the wire services, and of course friends, family, loved ones started to call the campus, call Kent to find out if their child was, or, or their husband or their wife or whatever was safe. And the load — the load on the Ohio Bell telephone system simply crashed it. And so we had the only open telephone line out of the campus for most of the afternoon, and that became the conduit for us to get a complete as possible –
story by the night final, the 4:00 edition. Now, we were aided in that by another telephone. We sent a reporter named Bob Page over to the hospital in a nearby town called Ravenna, which is the — sort of the government center of the county where Kent State was. And his job was to get the names of the dead and the wounded, and he was able to do that by, again, finding a telephone in the hospital where he called the state desk and Pat Englehart said, “I’m gonna call you back and, and I’m going to ask you to then, when you pick up the phone, I’m just gonna ask you to let the phone” – these were wall phones and dial phones –
“let the phone dangle from the cord and go off and get the names and so on,” which he did. And he was a — as he recalled to me later, he said, “You know, Pat Englehart used to lecture to us never to leave the office without a pocket full of dimes,” because that’s what a phone call cost in those days, and you were gonna need a phone call ’cause, you know, there was no such thing as an iPhone or a portable telephone at all in those days. So reporters were really bound to the reality that what you had, what you were able to observe, you either had to go back to the office and write it or you had to find a, a payphone. And so with the — with the only payphone on the Kent State campus in the possession of Jeff Sallot, the young reporter, and the –
the telephone in the hands, or the telephone dangling from the wall in the hospital in Ravenna where this young reporter, Bob Page, was trying to get the names, and he got the names in a very interesting way. We sent a second reporter named Tim Smith over to be with him and, and they recognized that the hospital had turned the handling of the press and the public statements over to the local congressman, William Stanton. And they both knew Stanton so they approached him, and they realized that he was — he was holding a piece of paper with a lot of names on it, and they, and they were able to determine that this was the — was the list of the casualties, the dead and the wounded. But he was all — he was –
not going to have a press conference until 6:30 in the evening, which was two hours after our press run. So between them, Bob Page and Tim Smith engaged the congressman in some political talk while the other one copied the names off the sheet of paper that he was holding down at his side, and we were able to get those names into the final edition, again, by opening — by calling the names from that telephone that was dangling from the wall and getting the — using it to get all the names for our — for our final edition of the day. So we gave our readers a really thorough story, as much as possible, of that terrible tragedy on May the 4th.
Teri Finneman: You know, that’s really my favorite part of your book is, is hearing you, reading you, describe the old technology and the old-fashioned shoe leather get-it-done reporting of the day. And so continuing on this discussion of, of technology, you have an interesting chapter about images and photography. This, of course, is back in the day when photographers used film, so they didn’t know for sure what they had until they went back to the newsroom to develop the roll and then look at the negatives. So what ethical decisions did you have to make that day about photography and what images to use?
Bob Giles: Well, they were less ethical decisions than they were news judgments. Uh, what everybody, most people remember from the photography at Kent State, of course, is the iconic photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio, this runaway woman, young woman –
from Florida over the body of, of Jeff Miller, a dead — a dead student, and she has her arms up in the air and she’s screaming, and that has really become the iconic photograph of Kent State. When you think of images of Kent State, you — it’s easy to have that photograph come to mind. What we decided to do in our May 5 edition the following day, we didn’t have any photographs on May the 4th, but on May the 5th, we had our own photographer, Don Roese, who had a taken a picture from behind the Guard as it moved up the Commons and began to push the students over the hill. And it was a — like a battle scene. There was lots of tear gas in the air and so on. And it sort of set the scene, in our view, of the, how –
showing how the war had come home to a college campus. And we ran that six columns wide and part of what — it turns out it helped demonstrate, as some of the other photographs did, that the Guardsmen’s lives were not in danger. They were not being pressed closely by the – by the protesting students. So we chose that image for our front page because it said to our readers, the local readers, that this is — this is how the rally and the following tragedy unfolded. And we thought that, and I still do, I think that was the right choice. We ran the John Filo iconic photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio and Jeff Miller inside the paper.
That was the more dramatic and, and the more enduring photograph. Our news judgment said we need to set the stage to — we need to show our readers how this terrible moment evolved, and so that, that was what we did. Now, there were some other decisions – you know, the story about the images is in that chapter is very interesting to me because it basically showed that the photographers, the young — they were three student photographers who were able to capture images that again demonstrated that the Guardsmen’s lives were not in danger. And, and some of their smart work is told in that story. One of them had taken some film of the –
the shooting and he was afraid – he had used couple of rolls not, not of the shooting, but these rolls contained the images of the Guardsmen shooting, and he feared that the Guardsmen would want to takes his film. So he quickly rewound the two rolls of film and stuck them in his back pocket, put fresh rolls in his cameras, and sure enough Guardsmen came by and demanded his film. So basically, he gave them two — two canisters of film that were blank. [Laughs]
Teri Finneman: That’s absolutely brilliant.
Bob Giles: And he preserved, you know, the ones, and he got those developed and they became part of the record.
Teri Finneman: So you’ve had 50 years –
to reflect on this, so what advice would you give to journalists today who are covering mass shootings?
Bob Giles: Well, I would say that the idea of doing coverage of mass shootings or other similar events today has a number of elements that I think are important. Uh, one is that you need to be familiar with the area. Know where you can be safe. And then, you know, listen, observe, believe what you can see, but recognize that what you witness may be only part of the story.
Be neutral and avoid emotional input in your storytelling. In other words, use words to describe events but not emotions. Those are — these are difficult stories and if we’ve been following the police Black Lives Matter protests and, and have begun to learn about how the journalists became targets by some of the — those who were involved in the protests, it elevates the reality that it’s a dangerous, this is dangerous stuff.
I think back to the days of Vietnam where truth telling made a huge difference in the public understanding of what was going on, and when you –
read the stories of some of the courageous reporters early in that war when they had the freedom to travel to jungle battle sites with the American forces, they were taking their lives in their hands, but also they were — they were sort of valued by the young soldiers because the soldiers knew that these, these young reporters, David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Malcolm Browne from the AP, were, were telling the truth and they were to a considerable extent contradicting the more rosy reports that the generals would give. In Vietnam, the tradition was that, at 5 every afternoon, General Westmoreland or some of the other leading generals would give a briefing and they would — they would talk about –
the number of Viet Cong or number of North Vietnamese that they had killed, and, and it was all — it was all designed to put a very positive spin on what was a losing war. And so the soldiers appreciated the work of these young journalists who were — who were going into combat with them as observers, and the stories that they were telling, which eventually began to reshape the public understanding of how the war was really going. And that came — that sort of came into play in Kent State because in fact the war really came home to America in that moment when four, four students were killed –
and, and nine were wounded. Uh, and, and this was something that none of us could have imagined, but it was a — it was really a statement that what was the — what the truth we told as a newspaper was really beginning to make a difference in shaping public thinking about what was happening in Vietnam.
Teri Finneman: Yeah. I think that’s an important point and, you know, that leads nicely into the final question that we ask our guests. Why does journalism history matter?
Bob Giles: Well, journalism history matters because the, you know, the examples that have been set over the years, generations of how does the truthful narrative ultimately shape –
public understanding of what happens. And you think of the description I just gave you about these three young journalists, David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Malcolm Browne, is part of that story. But, but I hope your students also remember the tragedy, the massacre at Mỹ Lai where a group of American soldiers killed 500 Vietnamese citizens and left them in a ditch and what a terrible, terrible scandal that was. And so and then, you know, we’ve had stories from Iraq and Afghanistan, treatment of prisoners and so on. There’s been a lot of courageous journalism that, that has shaped the public’s view of things and became the sort of historical record, and why I’m so, uh –
proud of the — or happy that I had this vital opportunity to tell the story of the Akron Beacon Journal and how we created a truthful narrative that challenged a lot of the public statements by the governors and President Nixon and, and others, the National Guard, and has become the truthful narrative that tells that the country has accepted, has, has stood for 50 years without really being challenged or changed. Uh, and that was — that was one of the core purposes in my mind for writing this book, When Truth Mattered.
Teri Finneman: Well, it is a fantastic book. I very much recommend that people buy it. They will love it. And thank you so much for joining us today.
Bob Giles: Teri, it was, it was a pleasure. Thank you. I enjoyed it. Good luck to you.
Teri Finneman: Thanks for tuning in, and be sure to –
follow us on Twitter @JHistoryJournal. If you like our podcast, leave us a rating and a review wherever you listen to podcasts. Until next time, I’m your host, Teri Finneman, signing with the words of Edward R. Murrow. Good night, and good luck.