“Four Dead in Ohio: A Media Failure”
How the Media Failed to Warn Students of the Threat of Deadly Force
at Kent State University, May 4, 1970
By Jim DeBrosse
(Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Journalism History)
When Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on protestors at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, killing four students and injuring nine others, many students, if not most, thought the shots were blanks until the wounded and dying began to fall around them. Why the use of live ammunition surprised both students and faculty members has been largely unexplored in media history research, even though state officials warned repeatedly in a press conference the day before the shootings that they would use “any means necessary” to maintain order on campus. Based on oral histories, archived audio files, extensive interviews with eyewitnesses and assigned reporters, and an examination of the news media available to the Kent State community at the time, this paper argues that the guard-dog theory of the press and Chomsky’s propaganda model help explain the failure by the local media to warn victims of the imminent threat of deadly force.
What happened during a student rally on the Kent State University campus commons at 12:24 p.m. Monday, May 4, 1970, in the space of thirteen seconds, may seem now almost pre-ordained. After a warning and a march by the Ohio National Guard to clear the commons of hundreds of demonstrators, some of whom responded by hurling rocks and insults, at least ten of the Guardsmen returned to the safety of a hilltop on the commons, turned as a group and fired off sixty-seven live rounds, most of them from powerful M1 rifles whose .30-caliber bullets can kill a victim up to two miles away. Many Kent State students and faculty members, if not most, who were witnesses to the shootings thought the bullets were blanks until the dying and wounded began to drop in their midst. In the end, four students were killed and nine seriously injured even though only three of the thirteen victims were known to be active participants in the demonstration. The President’s Commission on Campus Unrest concluded from its five-month investigation that the shootings were “unnecessary, unwarranted and inexcusable.”
At least two journalists involved in the coverage that weekend were aware in the days leading up to the confrontation that the Guardsmen, arriving Saturday night after a series of disturbances on and near the Kent State campus, were armed with live ammunition. Yet a review of two dozen newspaper articles and local radio broadcasts available to students and faculty at the time reveals only a single oblique reference to the Guard’s ammunition. And in spite of a press conference the day before the shootings in which state, National Guard and local authorities vowed to use “any force necessary” – including “shooting” — to stem the campus unrest, no reporter asked authorities at that press conference under what circumstances the Guard might fire upon student demonstrators. Only a single brief article in one newspaper’s Radio and TV Digest the next day mentions the possible use of deadly force against the demonstrators while available local TV and radio broadcasts make no mention at all of the threats.
From this evidence, two questions arise for journalism history researchers. How did the local media fail to warn the Kent State community that nearly 1,000 National Guardsmen dispatched by Gov. James A. Rhodes to keep order on campus were carrying loaded weapons? And if there had been a warning from the media, could it have spared lives and injuries or even prevented the tragic confrontation?
This paper will contribute to the history of one of the pivotal events of the Vietnam War era by attempting to answer those two questions and by examining more broadly the performance of the local media leading up to and during the Kent State shootings. The role of journalists received little or no attention in the two investigative reports issued by the government not long after the tragedy — The Report of the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest, often referred to as The Scranton Commission Report, and the FBI’s summary report. And while scores of popular and scholarly publications have examined the Kent State shootings and its implications over the past four decades, none has looked specifically at the role of media.
The existing literature tends to fall into the following categories: journalistic assessments of what happened on the day of the shootings and why, deeper investigations either alleging or discounting a conspiracy among the National Guardsmen and/or their elected leaders, the breakdown in communication between students and university administrators, the lack of training and discipline among the Guardsmen, analyses of the trials and alleged cover-ups that followed the incident, and at least one book criticizing protestors for their confrontational tactics.
To shed light on a largely unexplored area, the author reviewed more than sixty news articles, live audio recordings, oral histories and archived radio broadcasts from May 1 to May 5, 1970 in the Kent State May 4 archive as well as in the separate archives of the Akron Beacon-Journal, The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer and The Cleveland Press. The lone community newspaper in Kent, the (Kent-Ravenna) Record-Courier, does not have an archive. The student campus paper, The Daily Kent Stater, did not publish the weekend before or the day of the shootings. Of the local and regional radio news stations serving the Kent area – WKSU at Kent State, WKNT in Kent and WAKR and WLHO in Akron – only WKNT has retained news recordings from that period. None of the local TV news stations at the time — Akron’s WAKR-TV (ABC affiliate) and Cleveland’s WJW-TV (CBS affiliate), WEWS (ABC affiliate) and WKYC-TV (NBC affiliate) – have archived materials.
In addition, more than twenty hours of phone interviews were conducted with five eyewitnesses to the shootings as well as seven of the nine living news professionals who were part of the coverage that weekend or the day after. The journalists who were interviewed, along with their ages and positions at the time of the shootings, were: David Dix, who at age 26 was in his first year as city editor of the Record-Courier; Jeff Sallot, a Kent State senior and a stringer for the Akron Beacon Journal; Joe Rice, the politics reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal; Dick Feagler, a 32-year-old general assignment reporter and soon-to-be columnist for The Cleveland Press; Alan Thompson, a 29-year-old general assignment reporter for The Cleveland Press; Michael D. Roberts, a national reporter for The Plain Dealer and later the co-author of a book on the Kent State shootings; and Bob “Carp” Carpenter, a Kent State student, Vietnam War veteran and a first-year reporter for WKNT radio.
An examination of the articles and broadcasts that would have reached audiences at Kent State University from May 1 to May 4 shows an almost exclusive reliance on state and local authorities for information beyond what reporters could gather by direct observation and little, if any, from students and demonstrators. That oversight falls in line with both the guard-dog theory of the community press advanced by George A. Donohue, Phillip J. Tichenor, and Clarice N. Olien and the propaganda role played by larger media “on behalf of the powerful societal interests that control and finance them” outlined by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent. As its metaphor suggests, the guard dog theory argues that the local media act as a sentinel for those in power, sounding the alarm of potential intruders to the master of the household. Coverage leading up to the shootings makes repeated references to outside agitators, including the Weathermen, as cited by law enforcement officials and Rhodes. At the same time, there are only two comments from students in answer to a reporters’ questions, both quoted in the same Akron Beacon Journal article, plus a small inside feature story in The Plain Dealer based entirely on an interview with the editor of the campus paper. This finding would seem to echo Herman and Chomsky when they wrote in Manufacturing Consent that “from 1965 [on], the actual views of dissidents and resisters were virtually excluded” from media coverage of the protests against the war.
A predisposition to view the conflict from the point of view of authorities offers a larger political and economic context for explaining why journalists failed to call attention to the potential danger to students. But in fairness to the over-extended reporters who were assigned to Kent State during that tumultuous weekend – including the riots in downtown Kent Friday night, the burning of the campus ROTC building Saturday night, the governor’s press conference Sunday morning and the continuation of campus disturbances Sunday night – journalists also faced more immediate pressures. Several reporters said they were so caught up in the chaos of rapidly breaking and scattered news developments that they had no time to consider balance and depth in their stories. “We were just too busy watching things as eyewitnesses. We were filing right on deadline,” said Sallot, who was twenty-two at the time. “There was no time to take someone aside” for an interview.
In the hope of revealing how the failure to alert the Kent State community occurred, this paper will present a detailed narrative of key events leading up to the shootings from multiple points of view — students, faculty, Guardsmen and media. Finally, it will examine the professional standards for journalists, then and now, to determine whether adherence to those standards might have resulted in more balanced and comprehensive coverage.
To understand how American soldiers could have shot and killed American college students, one must first understand the deeply divided political and demographic milieu of the times. As the decade of the 1960s came to a close, the political and cultural gap between the younger and older generations over age thirty was becoming “an almost unbridgeable chasm.” Heaped atop a sexual revolution among the young that had shocked parents and the racial conflict that had torn apart urban communities across the nation, the Vietnam War “was costing the lives of hundreds of young Americans every week” at a time when the ranks of the military were filled primarily by a compulsory draft — not through recruitment incentives and volunteerism as it is today. As a result, the average age of an infantryman fighting in Vietnam was nineteen – the same age as most first-year college students — compared to an average age of twenty-six for troops killed in the current war in Afghanistan. The draft during the Vietnam War was the “Damocles Sword that at any moment could come crashing down on your head and change the course of your life forever,” said Dean Kahler, now 62, who was paralyzed by a bullet to his back during the Kent State shootings.
Even though polls at the time showed that Americans in general supported the Vietnam War, the opinion on the nation’s campuses was decidedly in opposition. The anti-war protests began as early as 1965, when the Leftist organization Students for a Democratic Society first organized “teach-ins” against the war at Berkeley and other elite colleges. In the years that followed, the movement broadened its support among the nation’s students and liberal intellectuals and escalated the aggressiveness of its tactics, leading to numerous marches, sit-ins, rallies and eventually violent clashes with soldiers at The Pentagon in 1967 and with police in Chicago in 1968. By 1970, the majority of older Americans were fed up with student protests against the war, many viewing the demonstrations more as “riots” by a spoiled generation of long-haired, foul-mouthed, radical youths whom President Nixon himself labeled “bums. . . blowing up the campuses.” Indeed, author William A. Gordon has called the Kent State shootings “the most popular murders in U.S. history,” citing a Gallup Poll soon after the tragedy in which 58 percent of Americans believed that students were primarily responsible for the deaths and only 11 percent blamed the Guardsmen who pulled the triggers. The public’s attitude prevailed in court as well: eight Guardsmen were eventually indicted for the shootings, but a federal judge dismissed the case in 1974, saying the government had failed to prove its case. The surviving victims and relatives of the dead settled a civil lawsuit for $675,000 in 1979.
Many college students, however, saw the Kent State victims as martyrs and the inspiration for broader demonstrations against the war. The collective emotions of youths at the time were captured and memorialized in what some music critics have called the greatest protest song of all time, “Ohio,” written by Neil Young and recorded by the group Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young just ten days after the shootings. Despite being banned on many AM stations for its accusatory lyrics (“Tin soldiers and Nixon coming. . . Gotta get down to it/ Soldiers are cutting us down”), the single managed to reach number 14 on the sales charts and became famous for its haunting, dirge-like refrain of “four dead in O-hi-o.”
A “Gorgeous Day” Turns Tragic
After three nights of anti-war disturbances, Naomi Goelman Etzkin, like many Kent State undergraduates, thought Monday morning, May 4, 1970 would bring a return to a normal campus routine in spite of the continued presence of hundreds of Ohio National Guard troops sent there Saturday night by Rhodes. By Monday, rifle-toting soldiers were in sight nearly every place that students traveled that morning on campus – around the commons, on street corners and inside buildings. Even so, Etzkin said she never expected that, by early that afternoon, four students would be dead and nine others seriously wounded in the government’s first use of deadly force on a college campus – a tragedy that would spur the only nationwide student strike in U.S history and, as an aide to former President Richard Nixon later argued, would begin the downfall of the Nixon presidency.
“It was a gorgeous day and everybody was out,” Etzkin recalled. Although it was mid-term week and she had an English exam at 1:10 p.m. that day, Etzkin and some friends decided to attend the noon-hour rally on the commons, where about 200 to 300 students were gathered at the Victory Bell to hear anti-war speakers and those opposed to the Guard’s presence on campus. Another 1,000 or so students and faculty were watching from the surrounding hills. So was the Guard, positioned at its command post on the western edge of the commons near the remains of the wooden ROTC building, which had been burned by dissidents Saturday night.
The assembly that day was by all accounts peaceful. But not long after noon, Guard officials decided to enforce what they, and university officials, thought was a legal ban on all student gatherings imposed by Rhodes, who the morning before had publicly vowed to declare martial law at Kent State but had never officially obtained such an order in court. A round of bullhorn announcements from a roving jeep, followed by the firing of two canisters of teargas, had minimum effect on the crowd. It was then that Gen. Robert Canterbury, the top commanding officer of the Guard, ordered 113 troops to don gas masks, “lock and load” their weapons and move across the commons with M1 rifles and fixed bayonets.
Most of the students scattered from the advance but some began hurling insults and rocks at the troops, whom they considered campus interlopers. The Guard responded with more tear gas. A “tennis match” ensued in which troops and students exchanged the smoking canisters, with the crowd cheering the students on. Despite the actions of the more militant students, Etzkin, who was watching the spectacle from relative safety atop Blanket Hill, was not concerned. “There was a different kind of feeling [that day] from the night before – and Saturday night – just not so much fear of the National Guard.” Although Sunday night had brought another round of rocks, tear gas and arrests, Sunday itself had been sunny, warm and calm, with many of the students talking amicably with Guardsmen. It was Sunday that Allison Krause, an Honors Student and art major who would be shot and killed the following day, had reportedly stuck a daisy in one Guardsman’s rifle barrel and said, “Flowers are better than bullets.”
But tensions rebuilt rapidly on Monday as Guardsmen attempted to clear the commons. The line of troops moved the students up Blanket Hill, around the Pagoda at its crest and down the hill all the way to the football practice field, where a six-foot chain-link fence stopped the advance of their march. It was there, facing students in the Prentice Hall parking lot behind the fence, that many observers say the Guard suffered the worst rock-throwing and verbal abuse. None of the troops, however, suffered injuries beyond scrapes and bruises and, by all official accounts, their lives were never in danger. What is certain, however, is that at least some of the Guardsmen, exhausted from four days of policing a violent Teamsters strike in the Cleveland area before being called to Kent on Saturday, were bristling under the stream of profanity and ridicule coming from demonstrators, including chants of “Fuck the Pigs!” and “Sieg Heil!”
Standing between the Pagoda and Taylor Hall on Blanket Hill, Etzkin watched as the troops on the practice field knelt, pointed their rifles at the offending students, then stood up and started marching away. Soon after, photos show a quick “huddle” in which some of the Guardsmen may have hatched a plan before proceeding again up the hill. Scattered rock throwing continued, but few objects hit their targets from a distance that author James M. Michener wrote “would have required good right arms like Mickey Mantle’s.” When the troops reached the Pagoda, they turned away from Etzkin in the direction of the practice field and the parking lot. The right flank of the troops took aim down the hill and began to fire.
“When we heard the gunshots, we didn’t believe that they were real bullets,” Etzkin said. “We thought they were shooting in the air, and we just didn’t believe that the bullets could be real.” Down the hill and in the line of fire, Kent State undergraduate and anti-war activist Michael Erwin, too, thought “they gotta be blanks. They can’t be firing live ammunition.”
Barry Levine, then nineteen, was in the Prentice Hall parking lot, more than one hundred yards from the line of troops. “There were several seconds of firing I thought were blanks at first until Allison was shot down,” he told The Cleveland Press. “Allison” was his friend Allison Krause, who was going for cover when a rifle bullet ripped through her upper left arm and passed sideways through her chest. She died later that day.
Jerry M. Lewis, a long-time Kent State professor and a sociologist who has written extensively about the shootings, said few, if any, members of the faculty knew the Guard had live ammunition. Lewis, thirty-three at the time, was an organizer of the faculty marshals – a volunteer group of about thirty mostly junior faculty members who dressed in black armbands as observers and go-betweens to help prevent further clashes between students and law enforcers. Lewis partly blamed himself for the breakdown in communication. During a meeting Saturday morning between the faculty marshals and Kent State Vice President Robert Matson, Lewis asked Matson if the troops had live ammunition. Matson responded that he did not know. “We should have asked the Guard officers, which we did not do,” Lewis said. “I was asked the same question that [Saturday] evening by some of the marshals and I answered that the Guard did not have loaded weapons — a mistake I always have and will continue to regret.”
The record shows that university administrators also failed to inform students and faculty of the deadly risks in confronting the Guard and, in fact, many were gathered with then-Kent State University President Robert White for lunch a mile from campus when the Guard began clearing the commons. Ironically, at least one person that weekend wondered why students had not been told that Guardsmen were carrying loaded rifles: Major Bob Jones of the Ohio National Guard. Testifying for the defense in the federal suit, Krause vs. Rhodes, brought by victims of the May 4 shootings and their families, Jones told the court:
This must have been on Sunday, the 3rd. It was brought to my attention by, I don’t recall who it was in the CP [command post] location, that some of the students had said, “Well, all you guys are carrying blanks,” you know, and I said, “Well, they should know that we have live ammunition, I would think,” but [the] conversation went on, “Well, they evidently don’t.”
Perhaps the least excusable oversight occurred among the group whose stated duty is to inform the public in matters of safety and welfare – members of the local media. The record shows that reporters covering the Kent State unrest had failed to gauge or communicate one or more of the following key story elements: 1) the naiveté and anger of students confronting the troops, 2) the lethalness of the weapons being carried by the Guard, and 3) the willingness of authorities to use deadly force to keep order on campus. Stories emphasizing any one of these three elements might have been enough to break the chain of events leading to Monday’s tragedy.
After the Shootings
Within seconds after the shooting stopped, the horror became all too real. Krause and three other students lay dying and nine others were wounded. The two closest victims to the Guardsmen were twenty yards away. But eight of those shot were more than a football field away, including Sandra Lee Scheuer, a 20-year-old speech pathology major who later died from a bullet through the left side of her neck, and William Schroeder, a 19-year-old psychology major and a member of the ROTC who was fatally shot in the back while lying on the ground. By all accounts, Scheuer and Schroeder had not been part of the noon rally but were killed en route to classes. Kahler, too, had been lying on the ground, a football field away from the Guardsmen, when a bullet entered his back and severed his spinal cord. Before he was wounded, “I could hear the bullets burrowing into the ground by my head,” he said.
Journalists and eyewitnesses interviewed for this paper expressed conflicting views on whether a media warning about live ammunition would have prevented students from confronting the Guard. Dix said the question was pointless because reporters weren’t aware of the live ammunition themselves, but Carpenter and Sallot both said they knew the Guard was carrying loaded weapons.
Ronald Snyder, then captain of an Ohio National Guard unit at Kent State not involved in the shootings, said it “was nearly impossible for anyone not to know” that the Guard was armed with live ammunition. Each time another truckload of troops arrived, Snyder said, it was standard procedure for Guardsmen to load their M-1 rifles with clips of eight bullets. With nearly a thousand troops on campus by the time of the shootings, scores of trucks had unloaded Guardsmen on campus. Snyder said there were no restrictions on the media talking to and interviewing Guardsmen.
Alan Canfora, who was shot in the right wrist while diving behind a tree seventy-five yards from the firing line, said it would have made no difference if students had been told the Guard was carrying live ammunition. “Everyone thought they were shooting blanks because there was no reason to be shooting,” he said. Canfora said he knew the Guardsmen had live ammunition but that didn’t stop him from waving a black flag near the forefront of the demonstrators.
Having grown up on a farm outside Canton, Ohio, Kahler said he was familiar enough with weapons to know the Guardsmen’s rifles were loaded, but he was caught in an open area of the commons when the shooting began. “I jumped to the ground, hoping I wouldn’t be hit,” he said. “I wondered why they were shooting at me. I wasn’t posing any threat to them.”
Sallot believes the students, including himself, were too trusting for a warning to have made any difference. “I still thought of [the Guard] as being a disciplined military operation,” he said. “I had trust in their leadership – the rules of engagement and all that stuff.” Kahler agreed with Sallot’s assessment. “This was a white middle class student body” inexperienced with lethal enforcement of the law, he said. If students had known the Guardsmen were carrying loaded rifles, he said, “they probably would have still been there, but I think they would have stayed a bit farther away. They felt comfortable” with the Guardsmen.
The same was not true for black students on campus, most of whom had come from the inner city of Cleveland where they had known of the use of deadly force during the Hough riots in 1966 when four African-Americans were killed. “I was one of the student leaders who made sure black students weren’t involved” in the Kent State demonstrations on May 4, said Curtis Pittman, then an officer in the campus group Black United Students.
From the faculty perspective, Lewis said a warning about live ammunition would have resulted in fewer faculty members volunteering as marshals, but he doubted its impact on students. “They were very upset, not only about the invasion of Cambodia but about the Guard being on their campus.”
But perhaps a more telling quote came from a demonstrator caught on tape by a WKNT reporter just moments after the shooting: “They’ve got guns now. You don’t throw rocks against guns.”
The Build-up to the Shootings
The violence at Kent State and scores of other campuses across the country in early May 1970 can be traced directly to the televised appearance of President Richard Nixon on the night of Thursday, April 30. After being elected with the promise of winding down the war in Vietnam, Nixon told the nation that night that he was authorizing incursions into neighboring Cambodia to strike at enemy hideouts. Nixon insisted the move was necessary to protect U.S. troops and to “[win] the just peace we all desire there.” But by Friday night, his speech had launched the largest student protest movement in American history, eventually shutting down more than 200 universities and disrupting classes at hundreds of others.
Kent State was no exception. Although the on-campus demonstrations that day had been peaceful, the mood turned ugly on one of the first warm Friday nights in spring. Along the strip of bars and clubs on North Water Street in downtown Kent, a mix of students and non-students, including a motorcycle gang called the “Chosen Few,” began stopping cars, dumping and burning trash in the street, and throwing bottles and beer glasses at police cars. When police from Kent and nearby Stow arrived to clear the area, most of the crowd scattered but about twenty people began throwing bottles at buildings, breaking forty-seven windows in fifteen storefronts. At 12:20 a.m. Saturday, Mayor Leroy Satrom declared a civil emergency and ordered all bars closed, thus sending hundreds of additional bystanders into the chaos of protestors, tear gas, and police action.
Satrom called Rhodes’ office for help late that night, claiming that the SDS had taken over part of the campus, even though Kent State had disbanded the group in the spring of 1969. Later investigations by the FBI and a presidential commission found no evidence that the SDS or its more militant offshoot, the Weathermen, were involved in the unrest that weekend, but that did not stop the rumors from becoming fact in the minds of many of those in authority, including Rhodes, who said during the Sunday morning press conference at Kent State “that there have been strong words to the effect that they [SDS and Weathermen] have participated in this.” But as the Akron Beacon Journal pointed out in an editorial following the May 4 shootings, “To paraphrase Voltaire’s remark about God, if Weathermen did not exist, [they] would have to be invented. [The term] Weatherman. . . seems to have become a kind of shorthand for anyone who is bearded, surly and inclined toward violence.”
Lewis said nearly everyone in positions of responsibility at the time – state and local officials, university administrators and the local media — had failed to gauge the depth of student antipathy to the war at a time when 40,000 young men per month were being drafted into the military:
They completely misunderstood the feelings of students about the draft and the incursion into Cambodia. These protests were not supposed to be happening at a non-elite school. It was supposed to happen at Yale, Harvard and Berkeley, but not at a middle class college like Kent State.
In the Record-Courier the following Saturday afternoon, a front page story blamed the damage “on a crowd of approximately 500, mostly Kent State University students, [who] swept through downtown Kent late Friday and early Saturday morning, taunting police and breaking store windows.” Kent Police Chief Roy Thompson was quoted in the article as saying the disturbance was caused by a “bunch of agitators” and “subversive groups” without further explanation. The story quoted authorities who estimated the damage to businesses at $50,000, a figure that would be reduced by authorities to a more realistic $15,000 following the shootings. No students were interviewed for the story.
As the propaganda model would predict, The Plain Dealer marginalized the disturbances as unworthy of attention. To avoid over-time costs, the paper decided not to staff its Portage County Bureau that weekend. Its competitor at the time, The Cleveland Press, was an afternoon daily with no Sunday publication. The paper normally didn’t staff the newsroom on weekends until Sunday afternoon and didn’t send a reporter to Kent until Monday morning. The Scripps-owned paper folded in 1982.
Saturday night brought the violence on to the Kent State campus with activists tossing railroad flares at the ROTC building to try to set it ablaze. Bob Carpenter of WKNT was one of several reporters at the scene. A twenty-six-year-old Vietnam veteran finishing up his undergraduate degree at Kent State, Carpenter was both news director for the student-run WKSU and a reporter for WKNT, the local station under the same family ownership as the Record-Courier. In line with Chomsky’s argument that media agendas are accomplished in part by “the selection of right-thinking personnel,” Carpenter was hired by the Dix-owned commercial station after a series of broadcasts on WKSU in which he regularly challenged student activists. “I was good on my feet,” he said. “I threw it right back at them.”
Carpenter had been in downtown Kent reporting on disturbances when a Kent police officer tipped him off that students were trying to burn down the ROTC building. In a tit-for-tat violation of their mutual aid agreement, Kent police did not respond to the campus disturbance because Kent State University police had declined to respond to the downtown disturbances of the night before.
Carpenter arrived about 10 p.m. in time to see the burning building collapse. “The students are now applauding,” he recorded at the time. He watched as the Guard cleared the surrounding hillsides with tear gas. He did not see the first attempt by Kent firefighters at around eight o’clock to put out the fire. That is when activists drove them off by pelting them with rocks and cutting their fire hoses. Carpenter, who in a 2011 interview referred to the student activists as “SDS-ers,” insisted they had cut the hoses with machetes. In his Sunday broadcast after the fire, he reported that $1,000 worth of fire hoses had been cut “apparently with a two-foot machete that was later found in the area.” The Record-Courier also reported that students cut the “fire hoses with a machete.” However, the FBI report on the fire referred only to the use of “large knives.” Carpenter explained in 2011 that the activists “went to Canada and came back through Cuba with machetes.” He could not cite specific sources for his information.
Carpenter said campus police, and Kent State University Police Chief Donald Schwartzmiller in particular, had not made their presence felt that night. A university police officer told Carpenter that Schwartzmiller was in the football stadium parking lot drinking in his cruiser, Carpenter said. “He couldn’t control his men because he wasn’t there,” he said. “I was told he was drunk, which was unforgiveable for that Saturday night, especially with all that was going on. He knew all about the plans to burn the ROTC building, yet the campus police just stood there and watched.” Carpenter said he was given that information by a campus police officer named “Ernie,” but that he didn’t pursue the story because he considered it second-hand information.
It was the burning of the ROTC building and the inability to control the crowds on campus that had led Satrom to call Rhodes’ office and ask for the assistance of the National Guard. They arrived at about half past nine that night in trucks and armored personnel carriers, most of them tired and on edge after four days of stressful duty protecting truck drivers from bridge snipings and other violence during a Teamsters’ strike in the Cleveland area.
David Dix, then-city editor of the Record-Courier and the son of Robert C. Dix, publisher of the Record-Courier and owner of WKNT, was on his way through town following a date that night when he saw the flames on campus. “I stopped and sort of innocently asked a Guardsman what was going on,” he said. “He was just very tense and hostile and said, ‘Move on,’ and so I did” without further investigating, Dix said. “I wasn’t proud of my behavior as a journalist.”
Press conference was key moment
The next morning, around half past seven on Sunday, Carpenter got a call from Marty Howard, the general manager of WKNT and a Portage County Reserve Sheriff’s Deputy, who said he had been alerted to the governor’s press conference and asked Carpenter to cover it. Carpenter captured the only recording of that conference, which he donated to Kent State’s May 4 Collection.
Also present at the conference were Richard C. Widman of The Plain Dealer and Bob Schumacher of the Akron Beacon Journal. Both are now deceased. Sallot, a student stringer who normally covered Kent State for the ABJ, accompanied the more veteran Schumacher to the press conference but took no notes because Schumacher had been assigned the story, Sallot said. Dix said he believed that Record-Courier reporter Jim Strang had been sent to the press conference. However, several phone calls to Strang’s home in Avon were not returned. Sallot said about thirty to forty people in all attended the press conference, the bulk of whom were state, city and university officials. Sallot believes he was the only student there.
At nine o’clock Sunday morning, Rhodes helicoptered into Kent from a campaign appearance in Cleveland during his uphill race for the GOP’s U.S. Senate nomination against favorite Bob Taft. After touring the damage downtown and on campus, the governor met privately with officials at the Kent Fire Station. At that meeting was the commander of the Ohio National Guard, Maj. Gen. Del Corso, along with representatives from the Highway Patrol, the Portage County Sheriff’s department and prosecutor’s office, and three Kent State University officials. After a brief discussion, Rhodes opened the meeting to the media and began the conference with a fifteen-minute law-and-order tirade against campus violence in which he repeatedly pounded his fist on the table.
In his opening statement, Rhodes said, “I want to insure that we will employ every force of law that we have under our authority.” Whether “force of law” included the use of bullets is ambiguous, but that didn’t keep The Plain Dealer from using the headline “Rhodes Vows Laws Against Student Plots” on its story the next morning. Regardless of the opening statement’s ambiguity, Rhodes went on during the press conference to say four times with only minor variations that officials would use “any force [or means] necessary” to counter what he called “probably the most vicious form of campus-oriented violence yet perpetrated by dissident groups and their allies in the state of Ohio.” In what has become the most quoted part of his tirade, Rhodes said the protestors were “worse than the ‘Brown Shirt’[Nazis] and the communist element and also the ‘night riders’ and the vigilantes [of the Ku Klux Klan]. They’re the worst type of people we harbor in America. And I want to say they’re not going to take over the campus.” Almost prophetically, Rhodes told reporters that the activists would stop at nothing to achieve their goals. “I don’t think even death would keep them from their purpose,” he said.
Many journalists at the time, and historians later, have dismissed Rhodes’ tirade as law-and-order posturing to boost his chances against Taft. But Rhodes was not the only official at the press conference shaking a big stick. Highway Patrol Superintendent Robert M. Chiaramonte said that sniper fire would be returned with fire, even though not a single shot had been fired during the downtown and campus disturbances. Satrom also weighed in with: “We will take all – repeat all – necessary action to maintain order.” Not to be outdone, Del Corso said the Guard would “use any force that is necessary, even to the point of shooting,” then quickly added, “We don’t want to get into that, but the law says we can if it’s necessary.”
A recording of the press conference reveals that none of the reporters in attendance – including those from the Akron Beacon Journal, The Plain Dealer, the Record-Courier and local radio station WKNT – challenged authorities to explain exactly what force might be used against the students, under what circumstances, with what legal justification and with what type of ammunition. Carpenter, who filed a report for WKNT soon after the conference, said it never occurred to him to ask officials what they meant by “any force necessary” or to ask Del Corso if the National Guard had been equipped with live ammunition to do the shooting that he threatened. Carpenter failed to include any reference to the use of force in his broadcast. In what might be construed as unwitting support for the guard-dog theory of the press, Carpenter explained, “We didn’t even think there would be a shooting. We were more concerned about the town being trashed.”
Sallot said Rhodes’ table-thumping speech had shocked him with its vehemence toward the students. “When he said, ‘We are going to eradicate the problem, not just treat the symptoms’ [of campus violence], the hair stood out on the back of my neck,” Sallot said. The more veteran Schumacher was charged with filing a story for the Akron Beacon Journal. Despite the threats of government violence at the press conference, Sallot said he was more concerned about “how this kind of inflammatory language was going to resonate with a lot of the people in the community” who might be stirred to take up arms against the students. “I wasn’t thinking in terms of this being seen by the National Guard.”
By noon on that Sunday, as Rhodes boarded his helicopter at the Kent State University airport and took off again on the campaign trail, the chance to ask the tough questions had passed. And so did the chance for Kent State students and faculty members to learn from the media what dangers lay ahead.
After the continuing student unrest Sunday night and further encounters with the Guard, Sallot said the information from the press conference that morning “really got overwhelmed” by what editors considered fresher and more relevant material. By the time the early edition of the Akron Beacon Journal had reached the Kent State campus late Monday morning, “the Rhodes’ stuff would have been more than twenty-four hours old,” Sallot said.
The Plain Dealer ran Widman’s story on the press conference on an inside business page Monday morning under the headline, “Rhodes Vows Laws Against Student Plots.” Although Widman captured Rhodes’ red-in-the-face name-calling of students as “worse than the Brown Shirts, the communists, the night riders and the vigilantes,” he failed to mention the possible use of deadly force against the dissidents. A separate unsigned brief that appeared in early editions the same morning on The Plain Dealer’s Radio & TV page culled many of those threats under the more ominous headline, “Patrol Is Ordered to Fire on Snipers.” The brief’s byline said only “Portage County Bureau.” None of the surviving journalists involved in The Plain Dealer’s coverage knew why the story was buried or who was responsible for placing it there.
Mike Roberts, a Washington bureau reporter for The Plain Dealer at the time and the co-author with Joe Ezsterhas of a book on the Kent State shootings, 13 Seconds: Confrontation at Kent State, was candid about The Plain Dealer’s poor coverage of the Kent State unrest and the decision by its editors not to pay overtime to keep reporters there for the weekend. “The Plain Dealer had botched the whole thing,” he said. “The reason is they didn’t take the thing seriously.” Roberts said there was a “cultural divide” between the editors at the paper, who were mostly of the World War II generation, and reporters like himself, who were mostly under the age of thirty. The editors “didn’t understand that there was a whole change coming over the country at the time,” starting with the civil rights movement and the riots in the Cleveland area in the late 1960s, he said. “You just had a blindness at the time about what was going on, and yet you had the most tumultuous period in American history since the Civil War.”
But it was a blindness that had been pointed out two years earlier by the Kerner Commission report on racial disorders: “We believe that the media have thus far failed to report adequately on the causes and consequences of civil disorders” and “that reporters are already too closely tied to police and officials as news sources in a disorder.”
Although reporters at the Record-Courier were on the scene that weekend, Dix said the paper had its own pressures to deal with. His father and the publisher of the paper, Robert C. Dix, was a conservative Republican and chairman of the Kent State University Board of Trustees. The elder Dix had advised Kent State University President Robert I. White twice on Sunday to keep the university open and not give in to the anti-war protestors, even though some Kent State administrators, as well as Portage County District Attorney Ron Kane, believed it would endanger students not to close the campus. David Dix said he agreed with his father that the campus should be kept open. “There just seemed to be a lot of people who didn’t like colleges, and would just as soon see Kent State closed forever,” he said.
The younger Dix had been a teacher before his father persuaded him to come into the family business in 1968 at the age of twenty-nine. Even though he had gone back to Syracuse University to get his masters degree in journalism before becoming city editor at the paper, “I was so inexperienced,” he said. “I think I had been city editor for maybe a year [at the time of the shootings]. I was really green.”
Just prior to the shootings, the paper’s managing editor had left the newsroom to go to a Rotary meeting when Dix, who was left in charge, got a call from a student stringer at the Kent State campus about half past noon on Monday. The stringer told him of the shootings and that there were four bodies on the ground near Taylor Hall. “Are they students or non-students?” Dix asked. The stringer replied that two were in jeans and two were in khakis. “I thought, well, if they’re in khakis, they must be Guardsmen,” Dix said. But the stringer had meant khaki pants, not khaki uniforms.
Dix called a local hospital and confirmed that its emergency room had been in receipt of three bodies, but the hospital declined to confirm the identities until relatives were notified. He assumed that Guardsmen had been shot even though, in the three days of unrest leading up to the shootings, no guns had been found among the protestors and none had fired a shot at law enforcement officials. Dix rushed into print a front-page bulletin with a 72-point boldface headline, “2 guardsmen, 1 student dead in KSU violence.” When the managing editor returned from his luncheon meeting at about two o’clock that afternoon, “he saw the headline and said, ‘That can’t be right’,” Dix said. “He called the hospital and got the correct information.” But by then, 4,000 to 5,000 copies of the paper had been printed and distributed in Kent, including the university campus.
One might argue that the front-page mistake was one more outgrowth of the paper’s guard dog perspective: if, indeed, the threat posed by student demonstrators and unconfirmed “outside agitators” had all along been the focus of the paper’s coverage, the fact that students, not Guardsmen, had been the victims of violence may have failed to register on Dix’s awareness or that of his staff. This viewpoint was buttressed by a front-page, top-of-the fold editorial that appeared in the Record-Courier the morning of the shootings under the headline, “Universities must oust hooligans.” The unsigned piece, pulled in later editions, railed against the agitators on campus and stated forebodingly that their acts of violence “merit the sternest repression.”
Dix recalled the paper’s performance that day with regret in his voice. “I must say we were not up to [the events] at the time. You know, small-town papers seldom get a story like that,” he said. “We had a small staff of about six or seven reporters and three to four editors.” By comparison, the Akron Beacon Journal flooded the scene immediately after the shootings with twenty six reporters. It later won a Pulitzer Prize for its follow-up series on the tragedy.
Dix blamed himself, too, for not having learned more about student concerns on campus prior to the shooting: “When I arrived at work on Monday morning, I had no context. I was so out of touch.” He said he did not realize the magnitude of what had happened at Kent State that day until he tuned into the CBS national news that evening “and saw it was Walter Cronkite’s top story.”
“You learn from your mistakes,” Dix said, adding that he spent the next two years beefing up the staff and “taking a more hands-on approach to planning our coverage.”
Roberts said little changed at The Plain Dealer immediately after May 4. However, when he became city editor within a year of the shootings, he said one of his first priorities was to assemble reaction teams that could be dispatched quickly to the scene of a mass disaster or civil disturbance. The Plain Dealer coverage of the Kent State shootings and the events leading up to the tragedy “was a tremendous embarrassment for the paper,” he said.
A Lesson for Today?
If, as Sallot said, reporters trying to keep up with rapidly breaking events at Kent State were too busy filing the basics of what was happening to provide more balanced and comprehensive coverage, it raises concerns that are even more relevant today as news operations continue to cut back on editorial staffing. Newspaper newsrooms alone were 30 percent smaller in 2011 than they were in 2000, according to the Pew Research Center. The Kent State tragedy should admonish media owners and managers that too few reporters in the field is a grave disservice to the public, especially when covering potentially volatile events such as mass demonstrations. At the very least, the kind of quick response team that Roberts organized at The Plain Dealer following the May 4 shootings should serve as a model for all news organizations. For individual journalists, the tragedy should be a lesson that vigilance in reporting all sides and all potential consequences to a civil disturbance is more than just a professional pretense.
Shoemaker and Reese point out in Mediating the Message that reporters have varying degrees of independence that allow them to write for themselves and their colleagues. Indeed, case studies have varied in the amount of conflict they have found in newsrooms over internal policies and professional autonomy, but the fact that any conflict occurs at all indicates that reporters are more than mere automatons performing their roles as guard dogs and propagandists.
Since 1926, the codes of ethics of both the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Society of Professional Journalists have admonished reporters and editors that they “should be free from opinion or bias of any kind” as well as “from all obligations except that of fidelity to the public interest.” The codes have said the right of a newspaper “to attract and hold readers is restricted by nothing but considerations of public welfare.” Certainly, if the public welfare is the only real restriction on the press, then warning students of the imminent threat of deadly force, as stated repeatedly during the Rhodes press conference, would seem to be a professional duty. The SPJ Code says:
Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. . . . Journalists should give voice to the voiceless; official and unofficial sources can be equally valid. . . . Journalists should be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.
Every working journalist has regrets about a question not asked or a statement not challenged. But in the case of the coverage of the student unrest at Kent State University, the authorities so dominated the agenda that no reporter thought to ask if the nearly 1,000 troops ordered there to maintain peace were carrying loaded weapons and if and when they might have cause for firing on students. Indeed, hindsight is twenty-twenty, and it can be argued that there is no person so blind as a journalist facing a deadline in the midst of confusing, dramatic and rapidly changing events. But a blindness that cannot be easily forgiven is one that fails to see the interests and safety of all parties in those chaotic events or to question the wisdom of leaders, who may be equally blind to what is happening around them. “I think [reporters] are in love with power,” said Lewis, now a professor emeritus of sociology at Kent State University, “because they have so little of it themselves with editors and publishers telling them what to do.”
Journalists on the scene at Kent State trusted that the Guard and its military and political leaders could be counted on not to fire upon unarmed students. That trust pushed into the background the lethal force at the fingertips of the Guard and the threats of violence stated publicly by their leaders. As a result, fifteen hundred students showed up for what began as a peaceful demonstration on the Kent State commons on Monday, May 4, uninformed of relevant facts that may have helped spare the lives of four of them and the pain of nine others.
As Carpenter correctly pointed out, “Everybody made mistakes that day.”
But making sure reporters don’t make those mistakes again requires, first of all, a greater awareness among news professionals of the operational, economic and extra-media forces acting upon them and, just as important, a greater awareness of their ethical duty to act against those forces in the public welfare. The legendary rock lyrics “Four dead in Ohio” should remind journalists that they must do their part to see that it never happens again.