When Truth Mattered: Q&A with Traverse City Author Bob Giles

Bob Giles was a young newspaper editor at the Akron Beacon Journal when the Kent State University shootings occurred on May 4, 1970, leaving four students dead and nine wounded. That fateful day still haunts the nation 50 years later.

Giles and his team of journalists quickly and carefully began working to uncover the facts behind the shooting—from the moment bullets were fired at a student demonstration, through years of in-depth investigative coverage. The newsroom’s pursuit of the truth surrounding the tragedy—an event that dramatically changed the Vietnam War debate—ultimately earned the Beacon Journal a Pulitzer Prize.

Following his work in Akron, Giles went on to editorships at The Detroit News, and the Times-Union and Democrat & Chronicle in Rochester, New York, before serving as the curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University from 2000-2011. Today, he lives with his wife, Nancy, in Traverse City and sits on the boards of the National Writers Series and International Affairs Forum, as well as the editorial board of the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

The veteran journalist recently released a memoir, When Truth Mattered, chronicling the Beacon Journal’s efforts and the important role the newsroom played in disclosing the mistakes and decisions that led to Ohio National Guardsmen shooting 13 Kent State students.

Those interested in reading Giles’ memoir can find When Truth Mattered on Amazon or at Mission Point Press.

We recently asked Giles to share some thoughts on his new book and the importance of continuing to support investigative journalism and small-town newsrooms.

Tell us about your background—what drew you to journalism?

Growing up in a middle-class neighborhood on Cleveland’s west side, news seemed to be a focus of dinner-time discussions. My dad was an electrical engineer and my mom a homemaker who volunteered in the local library and taught English as a second language to men and women recently arrived to make a new home.

News was a focus but so was truth and justice. They fanned my interest in stories where fairness was at issue, often playing out in the latest reports from the war fronts.

Memories that I associate with an emerging interest in journalism go to the excitement of the days of World War II. We listened to the nightly 15-minute radio reports by Lowell Thomas and devoured the local newspapers, the Cleveland Press and the Plain Dealer. A daily ritual during the summer was sitting with the neighbors on their porch immersed in news of the war. Front line dispatches from Europe by Ernie Pyle were a topic of discussion. A particularly vivid memory is a huge photo of the aircraft carrier Yorktown as it sank during the battle of Midway in 1942.

A passion for sports and the struggles of the hometown Indians occupied my imagination. I began to dream about being a sports writer covering the team. Oh, to have access to the inside stories from the dugout and locker room! A neighbor was a columnist for the Plain Dealer who understood my interest in and curiosity about newspaper work. He invited me to listen while he described newsroom politics at the paper.

In high school, I struggled to balance the demands of after school practice in basketball and baseball and my duties as sports editor of The Interpreter, the school newspaper. The Korean Conflict began in 1950, the summer before my senior year. Older friends had been drafted and quickly sent into combat. That reality, far from the safety of my world, influenced my search for a college that offered officer training. I thought it would be a certain route to a military deferment.

I chose DePauw University, believing its Air Force ROTC program would enable me to complete my undergraduate studies. That became a false expectation. I washed out after my second year because I could not pass the eye exam to qualify for flight school.

During my freshman year, I joined the staff of the student paper. I loved the newsroom environment. The editors seemed to know all that was going on around campus. I couldn’t get enough of the inside story. When I began my senior year, I had been elected editor.

DePauw was a small, liberal arts school in rural Indiana near Indianapolis. It had a big reputation in journalism. The founding editors of the Wall Street Journal were DePauw graduates and returned to campus now and then to share their wisdom with students.

As my senior year arrived, I began to weigh the prospects of graduate school. I realized then that journalism was an exciting goal and I was ready and willing to follow the paths of other DePauw graduates. I applied to Columbia’s graduate school of journalism in New York City and Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism in Evanston, Illinois. Both accepted my applications. I chose Columbia because I could earn a master’s degree in one year, instead of two at Northwestern.

By then, I knew I had run out the string on military deferments. The fighting in Korea had ended and I was content to serve in a peace-time Army. The draft was waiting for me as I completed my graduate degree.

During eight weeks of basic training at Ft. Chafee, Arkansas, I was assigned to attend clerk-typist school. I thought that was a poor choice and stubbornly believed the Army could make better use of my basic skill, journalism. Boldly, I wrote a letter appealing my case. My note reached a colonel who needed a young writer for the Public Information Office at Ft. Monroe, Virginia. He had orders cut for me.

During my time as a soldier at Ft. Monroe, I had the freedom to work evenings and weekends as a reporter for the Newport News Daily Press. I covered cops and zoning board meetings and a general run of stories. It was my first newspaper job. As my two years of active duty neared an end, I was firmly hooked on the newspaper life. I began my brief search for a newspaper job. On the day of my discharge, I had secured a beginning reporting assignment at the Akron Beacon Journal. I spent 17 years that were filled with growth, adventures and opportunities.

What brought you to Traverse City?

During my junior year in high school, my parents brought my sister and me for a holiday at Glen Lake. We all thought it was a beautiful place. Over the years, the lure of the lakes and beaches stayed with me. One summer when we lived in Akron, we came to visit Kurt and Eleanor Luedtke, a young editor at the Detroit Free Press. With our young family, we returned often, renting cottages on Glen Lake.

We moved to Detroit in 1986 when I became editor of The Detroit News. The following summer, our family, Dave, Megan, Rob and Nancy, rented a cottage at Empire. Our happy previous experiences visiting the Traverse City area prompted me to start searching for land on the water where we could build a cottage.

Our real estate agent encouraged us to visit a place called Cathead Point near Northport. “It’s way out there,” he cautioned, “but it is really beautiful.” On a rainy day, with friends from Boston in tow, we found our way to Cathead. We took the long walk through the woods toward the lake. Behind me, I could hear Nancy muttering with uncertainty about the idea of having a place “Up North.” She thought that was a cliché.

When we got to the edge of the dune and looked down toward Lake Michigan with the Fox Islands in sight, Nancy turned to me and said, “I didn’t know you could buy land this beautiful.”

Nancy’s brother, Jim Morgan, a New York architect, lovingly designed a cottage and, on Memorial Day 1989, we moved in.

Over the next 24 years, the house at Cathead Point became our refuge, our destination from the incredible demands of life and hard work in Detroit.

In 2013, I had been retired from Harvard for two years and was finding life of a retiree in Cambridge unsatisfying. Nancy was fully engaged in her psychology practice. We talked through the idea of moving back to Northern Michigan. Nancy needed an assurance she would not have to spend snowy winters in cold isolation on Lake Michigan.

For several years, we had been observing the creative restoration of the former Michigan State Mental Hospital. The opportunity to purchase a condo in the Village Commons was presented to us in 2012. We moved in during the onset of a rugged and snowy winter in December 2013. We have grown to love life here even though the contrast with the peculiar magic of Cambridge and Boston was stark.

In addition to this year marking the 50th anniversary of the Kent State shootings, what prompted you to write this memoir?

Over the years, I have talked about my experience in directing the coverage of the shooting and the important role I thought the Beacon Journal played in disclosing the mistakes and irresponsible decisions that led to the shooting of the students.

Frequently, I have been asked to talk about the most important story I covered in 40 years in journalism. Without fail, Kent State came to mind. I discovered that I had a keen memory for the details, clearly recalling names, challenges, and outcomes of our extensive reporting. I also realized that my original ambivalence about who was to blame for the tragedy had given way to a belief that the four students had been murdered by the Ohio National Guard.

I was proud to be associated with the newspaper that had won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage. It wasn’t until Nancy and I moved to Traverse City, however, that I began to consider the idea of a book.

Over dinner or after drinks, I was intrigued by the recognition that many people found my stories captivating. They were part of the generation that fought in Vietnam or protested against the war and the military draft. They remembered Kent State with a greater sense of emotion than I did. The legacy of citizen rights and misplaced trust became apparent.

One evening after dinner at the Apache Trout Grill, two well-known authors, Doug Stanton and John Bacon, listened raptly as I described how the Beacon Journal broke the story of the FBI report and its official finding that the deaths of the students was not necessary and not in order.

I described it as a “blockbuster.” Bacon insisted, “You have to write the story. It’s a book!”

How many survive from your news staff in 1970? Not many, they surmised.

I said I would think about it. I knew I was choosing a path littered with challenges, but the idea of a book on Kent State and truth telling had me firmly in its grip.

I became excited about the possibility of telling this story of an American tragedy from the perspective of my newspaper. My research quickly revealed that most of the journalists who worked with me were 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.

And so I began.

What lessons do you hope readers take away from the accounts and insights you’ve shared in your book?

When I began writing When Truth Mattered, America was in the midst of another national crisis. 1970 was a time when truth mattered, when the public tended to trust local newspapers to find out what happened and report accurately every day.

But I was writing during a time when the common dialogue had changed. Attacks on the press were everyday events. Vitriol spread by political leaders was meant to undo the independence of the press and encourage disbelief in that precious institution protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Yes, the Kent State story could stand alone. But its point that truth mattered would be lost without effective links to help news consumers learn from the truth-telling lessons of 1970 and apply those lessons to their desires to be well informed in 2020.

In the final chapter, I attempt to define what Kent State means after a half century. Here are some of the guidelines I would offer to today’s news consumers:

  • Be wary of rumors, misinformation and disinformation. Seek stories where reporters check the data, inspect papers of record, talk to people in a position to know.
  • Welcome scrutiny of elected officials and people in powerful positions. Honest practitioners welcome probing questions. Those with something to hide try to get away with a “no comment” or a claim that a truthful story is “fake news.”
  • Beware of journalists bearing opinions. Watch for journalists who attempt to merge fact-finding with opinion, especially their opinions of what is true. Avoid them.
  • Pay attention to journalists who are knowledgeable about the topics they cover and depend on reliable sources.
  • Trust journalists whose stories reflect the values of objectivity. Avoid reporters whose stories are based on subjective assumptions.
  • Look for evidence of deep reporting anchored in asking hard questions, examining records and depending on sources that know the facts.
  • Beware of false equivalencies. All sides should have an appropriate voice, but not necessarily an equal voice.
  • Don’t fall for conspiracy theories. They are typically based on misinformation.
  • Be skeptical of what you hear. Careful news consumers watch, listen and read with a degree of skepticism, especially those whose beliefs and ideas match your own.

Not long ago, I was talking with Record-Eagle editors about covering the Coronavirus. “When the crisis is past, I suggested,” your readers should be able to say, “I came to trust what I read in the Record-Eagle.”

You acknowledge in your memoir the challenges of shrinking local newsrooms and their ability to do in-depth investigative reporting. What advice do you have for today’s small-town journalists striving to meet the editorial standards of a by-gone era with today’s limited resources?

This is prize season, a time for newspapers to submit their very best work for consideration by various prize juries. The list of winners and runners-up are important models for local newspapers to study and compare their best work. Each year, small-town newspapers are among them. This is especially true of the Pulitzer Prizes. In each journalism category, three finalists are listed, along with the winners. Among the finalists, typically, are entries from small and medium-size newspapers.

The internet has become a convenient landing place for Pulitzer winners and runners-up to post work that has received recognition. A small news staff would benefit from taking an afternoon to do a deep examination of an award-winning project. Lessons learned during such a close study can be translated into ideas for eventual projects that can present a difficult and complex story to readers.

Assigning editors in small newsrooms might well ask for help from their reporters in determining how to invest their slim resources. One way to consider this is to ask, “where are most of the citizen tax dollars spent?” The answer could be schools or courts or jails. Then the challenge might be how to most effectively report on those important elements of the community.

How can community members better support their local newsrooms, and why is it important that they do so?

News coverage doesn’t come cheap. Responsible citizens can support their local newspaper by subscribing and reading it every day. Wise citizens can save money by using the coupons the newspaper carries when they shop.

There are a number of opportunities to become engaged readers. Write letters to the editor that offer observations on the paper’s opinions or coverage. Write short opinion pieces, especially if you have a specialty and can intelligently inform the community on a particular issue. Sharing your knowledge, experience, expertise in a column on the editorial page helps establish the credibility of a newspaper in the eyes of the larger community.

When a prominent person in the community passes away, let the paper know; lives well lived or individuals that have made a difference make good reading. The community appreciates respectful storytelling at the end of one’s life. Urge the editor to publish commentary that conveys knowledgeable opinion that may be contrary to the official point of view of the newspaper. Get to know the reporters. If you are an authority on a topic in the news, offer to become a source on such matters as climate change or school finance.

Keeping the local newspaper alive to serve the community is a critical responsibility. In its absence, citizens have no one to represent them at board or council meetings, to report on crime, to tell stories of success and failure. One of the important tasks of the local newspaper is to let citizens know what their government is doing. Journalistic oversight of people in power is essential.