Tuesday, February 9, 2021

When Truth Mattered - by Robert Giles

Published last year for the 50th anniversary of the Kent State Shootings author Robert Giles describes how the Akron Beacon Journal (the local paper that covered the protest and the shootings as they happened) worked to ensure that the reporting was accurate and true. 

On May 4, 1970 four students at Kent State University were murdered and nine others wounded when National Guardsmen fired on a peaceful demonstration against the Vietnam war. Of course in 1970 there was no internet, and no one had a cell phone, so newspaper reporters and photojournalists who were on the scene were entrusted to report the events. Live reports came in via landline telephones to the newspaper offices, that were then turned into stories by news writers. What is clear from this work is that misinformation, and indeed the deliberate spreading of disinformation are not new phenomena. Stories that two Guardsmen were among the dead who were "taken to the hospital, but someone switched their uniforms for hippie clothing" resonated with contemporary rumors that antifa dressed as Trump supporters in MAGA hats were really responsible for breeching the Capitol last month. Of course this book was published prior to the events of January 6, and as I was reading I couldn't help but wonder how the events would get reported if they happened today. I was not alone in questioning this. The final chapter of the book "The Meaning" explores this.

Initially the crush of digital information would be unmanageable for editors and news directors to sort out...Before long, though, differences would emerge. Common facts would no longer be universally accepted. The cultural wars of the time would twist reason and truth in the emerging search for blame. Each witness would possess personal evidence they would carry with them for a lifetime.

The digital images would shape memories; some would become weapons for taking sides, framing opinions, and inserting bias.

Algorithms would create a moment in which hundreds, maybe thousands, would be clicking, trying to tell the story...

The Beacon Journal had resources to quell some of the early rumors. Early reports indicated that a sniper among the protesters had shot at the Guardsmen prior to their opening fire. Evidence in the form of a bullet hole in a metal sculpture on the campus seemed to corroborate this.

To the untrained eye, the shape of the bullet hole - about the size of a penny - affirmed the sniper theory. Metal from the hole splayed in the direction of the Guardsmen as they fired their rifles. The smaller smoother edge was on the other side of the sculpture, away from the soldiers. This seemed to clinch the sniper argument...

The newspaper, however, had the resources to perform its own forensic testing and demonstrate that a metal plate when shot by an M-1 rifle and .30 caliber ammunition "identical to that used by the National Guard" caused the metal to splay out "from where the bullet had entered the the steel plate, rather than from the exit" thereby providing evidence that the bullet came from the direction the Guardsmen were firing. 

I can't imagine that a local newspaper today would have the resources to conduct this kind of investigative journalism. Where the Beacon Journal had a staff of hundreds, contemporary newspapers may employ dozens. Furthermore, I wonder whether providing this kind of evidence would even matter. When Obama produced his long-form birth certificate (exactly the evidence that "birthers" claimed would stop the madness) those same deniers refused to believe what they saw.

Of course no discussion of Kent State would be complete without mentioning of the Cosby, Stills, Nash, and Young song "Ohio". For this blogger the most relevant information I learned about the song from Giles' book is that it was initially censored after it was recorded. When it was released in June 1970 some AM radio stations refused to play it. It did, however, find a place on the air on some underground FM stations and ultimately became the well known protest song it is today.

The Beacon Journal received a Pulitzer Prize in 1971 for its reporting of the events at Kent State. Giles describes his visit (in 2018) to Colombia University's Rare Book and Manuscript library, where the Pulitzer Prize Collection is housed, in order to do research for his book. The reverential tone of this passage makes clear the importance of librarians and archives in keeping our history and telling our stories.

Getting access to the Pulitzer Prize newspaper files was an elaborate process. We were accompanied to our destination in the University's Butler Library. Our first task was to establish our identity. The librarian explained the limits on material that could be taken into the "reading room". This was even quieter than most library spaces...Glass doors gave a full view into the reading area

The librarian gave each of us a pair of white gloves to wear in our search of the material. She explained that we each had to use a No.2 lead pencil to write notes from our research...

On a final note I have this story of my own to tell. Five years ago I was in Nicaragua and spoke to a muralist who was touching up an outdoor painting. The artwork depicted a shooting on a college campus with four students dead. I asked him about it and he told me it was an incident from the 1950s in which the government brought in the military to a student protest. I told him about Kent State Shooting and pointed out the striking comparisons between it and the event he described. He told me he hadn't heard about the Kent State shootings, but he really wasn't surprised to learn about them because since he'd created the mural he'd spoken to people from all over the world who had described similar events in their own countries.

In an age of fake news, and misinformation this work makes clear the importance of a free press. 

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