Over 50 years ago, Kent State University witnessed the massacre of four students, the injury of nine more and the permanent scarring of a nation that watched the events in horror. Half a century later, witnesses still bleed the pain and confusion that the May 4th shootings caused. A wounded nation filled with witnesses, all bearing unique perspectives of the tragedy that happened that day. A parent picking up a call from a petrified student. An outsider looking in through their television screen. A student sitting near an open window, capturing gunshots on a recorder. A journalist searching for the truth.
Robert Giles has many experiences and accomplishments under his belt. He graduated from DePauw University with a master’s degree in journalism. He has completed a career as a curator for the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. He has published four books and three edited works. But maybe the most significant experience Giles carries with him today is the role he played in the events of May 4th.
In 1970, Robert Giles was a young journalist serving as managing editor for the Akron Beacon Journal. During the days surrounding May 4th and the tragic day itself, Giles’ boss was out of town and the newsroom was left to his direction. When the shootings first occurred, newsrooms, television channels and radio stations were reporting that four National Guardsmen were shot, not four students. Unsurprisingly, information spread slower five decades ago, which often resulted in miscommunication and false reporting. With an inside source who was on campus and witnessing the events firsthand, Robert Giles was able to lead the Akron Beacon Journal into being one of the first newsrooms reporting on the truth of May 4th. On March 30 this year, Giles published an account of his perspective of the National tragedy entitled When Truth Mattered: The Kent State Shootings 50 Years Later, and the truth matters now just as much as it did then.
I live in Traverse City, Michigan which is a roughly seven hour drive from Kent, Ohio. It is a quiet town tucked in the pinky of the mitten-shaped landmass that is the Lower Peninsula. Traverse City values the local arts, cherishes tradition and hosts the National Cherry Festival. Each month, the local City Opera House features an accomplished author in what is called the National Writers Series, where they are able to speak about their work. Robert Giles was the author featured for the National Writers Series in November. Naturally, I signed up for the Zoom call where Giles would be interviewed virtually and instructed everyone I knew to tune in to where it would be publicly broadcasted on NPR. 436 miles away from campus as an online student and my University’s history follows.
He spoke of the importance of sifting through fake news and fact-checking. He read chilling excerpts from his book. He recounted his time as a young journalist with a daunting task of getting the story right. He told of the horror the nation faced on that tragic spring afternoon and he spoke directly to the current students of Kent State University, encouraging us to utilize the extensive resources in the Kent State library to research the events.
As the interview portion of the virtual presentation came to a close, I anticipated the official prompt that would open the forum up to questions for Giles. I had my inquiry written and copied. As fast as I could, I pasted it into the chat box.
“My name is Camryn Calderwood and I am a current student at Kent State University. What is your advice to students and today’s youth regarding our nation’s state of political and social unrest. How can students learn lessons from the May 4th protests and use their voice to generate progress?”
He responded without hesitation.
“To pay attention to how the values of truth and trust became the singular mission of (their) newspaper.”
Truth and trust.
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