The scientific twist of real news

Reading down through the 161 online comments appended to last Sunday’s Page One story about a tape made during the May 4, 1970, shootings at Kent State University, I felt like I’d been transported back 40 years.

It was like returning to campus in the days after the shooting, listening to one side snarl that the destructive, anti-American, longhaired hippies had gotten what they deserved, and to the other side rail against the warmonger Richard Nixon and the villainous Gov. James A. Rhodes, who had ordered the National Guard to Kent.

So much time has passed, so much has changed, and so much remains the same.

The thing that brought all this long-dormant vitriol bubbling back to the surface was not a political story. It was a science story, one that injected real news into an event that for decades had been marked only by anniversary stories and the fading memories of the participants and witnesses.

For the first time, there seemed to be an answer to the debate over why a group of 28 National Guard soldiers turned in unison and fired on the students. Two forensic audio experts had independently concluded from their analyses of a tape that the Guardsmen were responding to an order to prepare to fire — and then, it appears, to fire.

Far from settling the issue, however, for many readers the story merely rekindled old fires.

Some claimed vindication and wanted to reopen the long-settled legal issues. Others imagined that the tape was a fabrication, or disputed the wording that the analysts found. Still others pleaded for us, after 40 years, to give the May 4 shootings a rest.

Ironically, the story grew out of a staffwide effort to look ahead rather than behind in our coverage of this year’s 40th anniversary of the shootings.

Metro Editor Chris Quinn had assigned a package of stories, all directed at showing how Kent has moved forward since then and has come to be known for academic and athletic excellence in several areas, rather than just as the place where four students were killed and nine wounded in an antiwar protest.

Science reporter John Mangels had drawn the story about whether and how the Kent shootings affected police tactics in trying to control protesting crowds.

Early in his research, he called the Kent May 4 Center to find out if there was a film of the shootings. There he encountered Alan Canfora, one of the people wounded in the gunfire, who runs the center. Canfora told Mangels that no such video exists, but that he had discovered a copy of the audiotape of the shootings in Yale University’s Sterling Library, and had purchased a CD. He said that ever since, he had been trying without success to have the sounds analyzed, to prove his 40-year belief that the Guardsmen had been ordered to shoot.

It didn’t take Mangels long to track down forensic audio experts Stuart Allen and Tom Owen, who operate separate labs in New Jersey, and who ultimately agreed to donate their efforts because of the historical value of the recording.

Mangels sent a copy of the CD to New Jersey, wrote his story about policing tactics, and wound up covering the May 4 ceremonies in Kent. He was on deadline that night writing the story when he got an urgent message from Allen that said, “Call me immediately!!!”

Mangels managed to quell his excitement over the fact that he had the long-sought answer, and finished his story — then caught a plane for New Jersey and turned his attention to the tale of the tape. You saw the result in last Sunday’s paper, with a full explanation of how the analysis was conducted and the experts’ confidence in the results.

Skepticism about the authenticity of the tape is understandable, and warranted.

The CD is at least four generations removed from the original reel-to-reel recording made from a dorm room near the site of the shootings: a cassette was made from that, then it was digitized into a CD at Yale, from which a copy was made for Canfora, from which a copy was made for Mangels. It’s fair to wonder what mischief or deterioration might have happened in the meantime.

But Allen and Owen both say that the audio evidence is there to hear what the order said. Further, they say the words “Guard! All right, prepare to fire!” are clear. And they say that they have long experience in working with doctored tapes, and found no evidence of that in this recording.

Less understandable are the complaints that we’ve heard enough about May 4, and we ought to let it rest.

No one is more weary of people asking about May 4 than those of us who were there at the time, and my own interest in the annual stories began to flag about a quarter-century ago.

But Mangels’ story about this analysis broke new ground on a key element of a historic event, something long debated but never resolved.

No matter what side of the student/Guard debate you’re on . . . where else would you put that story, other than at the top of the front page of the Sunday paper?

This column was originally published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on May 17, 2010.

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