Opinion: 'When Truth Mattered' — A call to action for news and consumers

Mark E. Lett

Bob Giles wants you to know the truth.

To be precise, Giles wants you to know how journalism — delivered with accuracy, determination and care — can reveal truth.

Giles' book, “When Truth Mattered: The Kent State Shootings 50 Years Later,” was published by Mission Point Press in Traverse City.

Giles — a veteran editor, publisher and academician — makes his case in “When Truth Mattered,” a skillfully conceived narrative about the fatal shootings of students on the campus of Ohio’s Kent State University a half-century ago. In some 300 pages, Giles revisits the “13 seconds that terrible day” when the Kent State campus became a combustible killing ground, heated by a confrontation between anti-war protesters and “locked and loaded” members of the National Guard.

Giles provides a unique vantage point for a horrific event that seems long ago, but has relevance today.

At the moment of the bloody tragedy, Giles was 12 miles away in the newsroom of the Akron Beacon Journal. From there — as managing editor — he directed newsgathering that produced timely, authoritative coverage. For its performance, the northern Ohio paper was awarded a Pulitzer Prize — the highest honor in American journalism.

In “When Truth Mattered,” Giles takes readers inside his newsroom on May 4, 1970, providing an insider’s account and a journalist’s passion for facts, urgency, meaning and — ultimately — truth. Along the way, his storytelling details the conflicting emotions that confront newsrooms covering momentous, fast-moving events: enthusiasm, indecision, anticipation, frustration, precision, confusion, cooperation, competition, pride and second-guessing.

As the leading source for information on the Kent State tragedy, the Beacon Journal’s breaking news coverage was devoured and valued by readers. But the mood shifted as the newspaper dug deeper into the circumstances of shootings that left four students dead and nine wounded. Like the nation, the newspaper’s customers were divided on the expanding war in Vietnam and, by extension, the role of protesters and National Guard members dispatched to the Kent State campus.

The way some readers saw it, the protesters were troublemakers who baited the university and the Guard, shouting “Kill the pigs” and “Stick the pigs.” To others, the Guard was dangerously callous — over-armed and under-trained “summertime soldiers” wielding M-1 rifles and bayonets.

The Ohio National Guard moves in on rioting students on May 4, 1970, at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio.

From that tension — as visceral as any rhetoric souring today’s divided America — flowed praise and criticism of the newspaper. Some valued the dogged reporting that followed the story through a series of government inquiries and reviews. Others dismissed the newspaper as biased and un-American.

Returning to the roots of reporting to compile facts for “When Truth Mattered,” Giles recounts how the Beacon Journal met the challenges of unearthing details and letting the chips fall where they may. His account draws upon his own recollections and notes, archived news coverage, interviews, and the scrupulous mining of documents, investigative summaries and the report of a presidential commission.

Giles writes about the Scranton Commission on campus unrest:

“I am mindful of how, in the 21st Century, the United States has become a nation in turmoil. The accounts from 1970 have value today in the truthful, transparent manner by which they conveyed the work of independent-minded citizens acting in the best spirit of a non-partisan inquiry. … Its penetrating assessment on the causes and origins of strife and violence affecting college campuses was meant for the country at large — as a cautionary lesson for our future.”

Thousands of people crowd around the cortege bearing the body of Jeffrey Glenn Miller after funeral services in New York, May 7, 1970. Miller, a 20-year-old student, was one of four people killed during disturbances on the Kent State University campus in Ohio on May 4.

In content and concept, “When Truth Mattered” has appeal to multiple audiences.

It is, of course, an authentic piece of reporting on change-making history. The book gathers strength not only from painstaking research, but also the use of primary sources, photojournalism, maps and Giles’ deft use of his own first-person involvement.

For journalists, the book is a master class in newsroom standards and leadership. Newspaper newbies and veterans will recognize the personality types and practices of the Beacon Journal newsroom. Their experiences serve as lessons essential to quality reporting, editing, ethics and leadership.

Giles, a former editor and publisher of The Detroit News now living in Traverse City, said he wrote the book in part as a tribute to the Beacon Journal’s prize-winning staff.

Robert Giles, author of “When Truth Mattered,”’ is a former editor and publisher of The Detroit News.

“My research quickly revealed that most of the journalists who worked with me are gone, and I developed a keen sense of wanting to honor them and their memories by telling readers what an important contribution they had made to the critical journalist value of truth-telling,” Giles told the MyNorth.com website (the online home of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine) in March.

The journalists are remembered, and some memorialized, in a back-of-the book tribute called “The Truth Tellers.”

The book’s overarching mission, it can be argued, is to explain the journalistic process — then and now — to consumers increasingly hungry for reliable information, and increasingly skeptical of news professionals. 

Much has changed in 50 years, to be sure.

Among the most significant differences, Giles notes, is the impact of the digital age on newsgathering. Reporters on the scene of the Kent State tragedy reported breaking news by landline pay telephones, using a “pocket full of dimes” or by persuading university office workers to leave desk telephones open and connected to the newsroom. Today’s cellphone technologies not only empower reporters, but also onlooking non-professionals with access to the global web.

Digital advances add speed to sharing news events, while exponentially increasing the chances for confusion, error, mischief, insufficient context and malicious intent.

“Today, the images and sounds from the Kent State campus would burst into view on the power of the internet,” Giles writes. “The ubiquity of hand-held devices would enable many among the thousands of witnesses to capture the tragedy unfolding before them. The desire to serve a culture of impatience — I want it now — would be prevalent. Urgency would be the enemy of accuracy and care.”

All of which raises the ante for today’s journalists to double down in their quest for facts and details that surface the truth. That task has become more daunting in a media where facts and opinions often are not easily separated and where newsroom resources and staffing are in sharp decline. The Akron Beacon Journal today, Giles reports, is “gamely publishing a daily newspaper with a staff of 35, as compared with 150 in the mid-1970s.

In response to the ebb and flow of newsgathering, Giles asserts, news consumers have become more discriminating and discerning. 

“They understand the consequences of social media, the partisan bickering, the twisting of the truth, claims challenging the validity of 'facts.' They live it daily,” Giles writes.

To that end, Giles offers readers a “toolbox” of tips for understanding today’s news events. Among those:

► Beware the journalist bearing opinions.

► Welcome the scrutiny of the powerful.

► Embrace skepticism.

“Careful news consumers should be prepared to watch and listen with some degree of skepticism — even if those sources routinely reinforce your values and beliefs,” Giles writes.

Truth, he asserts, is not easily found. But in examining coverage of the Kent State tragedy, Giles suggests, there is a call to action for today’s journalists, newsmakers and news consumers.

Mark E. Lett is a retired editor and vice president of The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., and former editor of The Post-Tribune in Gary, Indiana. A native of Downriver Detroit, he is a former reporter, auto editor and assistant managing editor of The Detroit News, as well as a former newsroom editor at the Detroit Free Press, The Pittsburgh Press and The Mellus Newspapers. Lett was subordinate editor when Giles was editor and publisher of The Detroit News.