Academic journal article Journalism History

"Four Dead in Ohio": How the Media Ignored the Threat of Deadly Force at Kent State University May 4, 1970

Academic journal article Journalism History

"Four Dead in Ohio": How the Media Ignored the Threat of Deadly Force at Kent State University May 4, 1970

Article excerpt

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 sixtyseven live rounds, most of them from powerful Ml rifles whose .30-caliber bullets can kill a victim up to two miles away.1 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.2 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."'1

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 despite 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.7 Only a single brief article in one newspapers 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.8

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 article contributes 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 summary report of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. …

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