Margaret Sullivan: How would Kent State tragedy be covered with today's resources?
Summary: Even amid the rampant polarization and turmoil, "people do want to gravitate to truthful information." The challenge, at least on the local level, is how to keep the sources of it alive and functioning.
Robert Giles, the second-in-command at the Akron Beacon Journal during a fateful moment 50 years ago, recalls what his boss said as he left for an overseas trip in the spring of 1970.
"You are in charge. Don't screw it up."
Giles, who was 37 at the time, did not screw it up.
Days later, the country and the world would look to the local paper for authoritative, exemplary coverage of an event that is still hard to comprehend, five decades later.
Ohio National Guard troops responding to a protest of the Vietnam War on the Kent State University campus opened fire on a crowd, killing four people and injuring nine others.
It was one of those rare hinge-of-history moments. The country, already deeply riven by a war that would take more than 58,000 American lives and millions of Vietnamese lives, would never be the same. This horrific event on May 4, 1970, would be seen as the end of the post-World War II era and the beginning of a new era in American politics and society that has brought us to the current moment of almost hopeless polarization, cynicism and distrust.
"The gunshots still echo in 2020," wrote Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch. "It's no accident that in the months immediately after Kent State, business leaders and other conservatives began looking for ways to quash liberal thinking on campus and counteract it with the conservative web of noise that became talk radio and Fox News."
But as Giles, the Beacon Journal's former managing editor, told me in an interview, the worst of it is that no justice was ever done.
"No one has ever been held accountable, in a country where the rule of law is supposed to prevail."
The Beacon Journal — headquartered just 20 minutes from campus — provided exceptional coverage on May 4 and in the contentious, emotional months and years that followed. Its initial reporting countered a wire-service flash report that erroneously stated that two students and two guardsmen had died.
"We went with our young reporter and we were right," said Giles, whose new book, "When Truth Mattered: The Kent State Shootings 50 Years Later," meticulously chronicles what happened inside the newspaper and how its journalism played out in the reeling nation:
"Tension was at the breaking point as we faced a critical choice: Go with the UPI story from an experienced reporter that two Guardsmen were among the dead. Or trust Jeff Sallot, our own reporter on the scene, who was telling us the four dead were students.
"Englehart turned to me. 'What should we do?'
" 'Let's go with Jeff,' I ordered, almost without hesitation."
Later, the paper investigated false allegations that sought to shift the blame from the National Guard to the students — for example, that there had been a sniper in the protest crowd.
Photography played a role, too. Looking back at the work of three student photographers used in the paper's coverage, Giles saw in retrospect how clear it was that the guardsmen had not been threateningly surrounded by students as some were claiming.
One student photographer, John Paul Filo, took the iconic image that still has the power to bring tears: A young woman's agony as she knelt beside one of the fallen bodies. It is that image — along with Neil Young's great protest anthem, 'Ohio" — that may linger most in our consciousness of the tragedy today.
And although the Beacon Journal's work was sometimes contested, it was accurate. The midsize daily won a Pulitzer Prize the following year for its spot-news reporting. Filo's photograph also won a Pulitzer.
I asked Giles, who later became the curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, if such exemplary and commanding local coverage would be possible today.
Of course it would, he said — if a news organization had the resources that the Beacon Journal then had.
Owned then by Knight Newspapers, which was known for its commitment to quality work, the newsroom had a robust 150-member staff, and the advantage of editors with deep knowledge of their community.
"We were really prepared for something like this," Giles said, particularly because the state editor, Pat Englehart, had such an extensive network of sources. He was assigned to run the immediate daily coverage of the shootings.
But Giles, who lives in Traverse City, Michigan, says he's cognizant of what's happened to much of local journalism in recent years.
The Beacon Journal, now down to perhaps 30 in its newsroom, "is gamely trying to do the job for their community," he said — but it's much harder now.
Still, he said, the importance of local journalism is underscored now as an even more polarized nation faces the current health and economic crisis caused by the coronavirus epidemic.
"It's become a sad time," he said. "The virus has demonstrated the need for authoritative reporting on the local level," even as the economy's downturn is delivering a brutal blow to news organizations, with only a few exceptions.
But some values haven't changed. Hence the title of Giles's book.
Even amid the rampant polarization and turmoil, "people do want to gravitate to truthful information." The challenge, at least on the local level, is how to keep the sources of it alive and functioning.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist.