November 25, 2009
Editor’s Note: To learn more about the Kent State Truth Tribunal 2010, please go to www.TruthTribunal.org and pre-register to participate as well as support us with your generous donation. Thanks!
A reporter named Jim Dudas from the Cleveland Press contributed this story on a National Guardsman present at the Kent State Massacre:
The year was 1971 or 1972. A federal grand jury had just handed down indictments of a number of Ohio National Guardsmen for the events on the afternoon of May 4, 1970, when the guardsmen fired upon a group of students protesting the United States’ bombing of Cambodia. The guardsmen were accused of violating the civil rights of the four slain students.
I was a relatively new reporter for the Cleveland Press. I had just been assigned the federal courts beat. And I was hungry and aggressive.
The morning after the indictments were handed down, and reported in the morning paper, the city editor came to my desk first thing upon my reporting for work and told me to go to Wooster, a small community about two hours south of Cleveland, and see if I could talk with one of the indicted guardsmen, Matthew McManus.
None of the indicted guardsmen were answering their phones or returning calls. I had McManus’ home address from the indictment. I found the home, left my car and rang the bell and rapped on the door. No answer. No surprise.
Not wanting to return empty-handed, I took a chance and found a phone booth (there were no cell phones then) and called the largest employer in town, Rubbermaid. The receptionist put me right through to McManus, a mid-level manager.
I remember to this day my exact words: “Hello, Mr. McManus, my name is Jim Dudas with the Cleveland Press, and I would like to get your side of the story about the indictments.” I did not say shootings because it would have implied that he actually shot and/or hit a student. He was not eager to talk, but he was too polite not to.
When it appeared he was willing to talk with me, I panicked. I didn’t expect the interview. I left my notebook in the car. But not wanting to slow him down or disturb him as he patiently and comprehensively answered my questions, I started writing on my hands, arms and, ultimately, my bare ankles, which, at the time, I could lift and rest on the small shelf in the booth. (Fortunately, I had only two days prior shaved my legs from the calves down in preparation for taping them for a marathon I was planning to run).
He was saying things no other guardsman had said before. He was scathing in his judgment of his commanding officers. I knew it was going to be a good story. I started running out of bare skin and he started running out of patience.
I asked if we might meet for lunch (it was then about 10 a.m.) to further explore some of his comments. “I will have to talk with my attorney,” he said. “Call me back in about an hour.” I knew there was not a snowball’s chance in hell that his attorney would let him talk to me while under federal indictment. Still, I hung around Wooster and, while waiting, transcribed my notes from my skin to my reporter’s notebook.
At precisely 11 a.m. I called McManus back. “Yes,” he said, “I did talk with my attorney and he does not think it a good idea for me to talk with you.” I thanked him for trying and hung up the phone. I did this hurriedly because I did not want him inquiring about what I might or might not do with the notes from our earlier conversation.
Not to be pejorative, but McManus was kind of unsophisticated, and I knew it almost immediately by the way he answered the questions. He was as unassuming and forthright as any subject I had talked with.
So here was my dilemma that I had two hours to think about as I drove back to the newspaper office. I had a great story, one we called a “one-er” (front page, above the fold). I also knew it was a national story. But I knew in my heart of hearts that McManus did not know talking to a reporter, without stipulating that it was an off-the-record conversation, could automatically be an on-the-record story.
My city editor was not expecting a story. No one else had one. McManus was not living at his home, so coming back empty-handed would not have hurt my career one bit. Only I knew I had a story. Only I knew I had a choice.
I did not want to hurt McManus. He was, after all, a fine young man, with a family, a bungalow and a comfortable existence in one of those storybook communities. And I knew a story like the one I had would cause him pain, embarrassment and, perhaps, impact the outcome of his trial.
But I had this freedom of the press thing to deal with, as well. I had my professionalism. And, yes, I had my ambition. Those three things were part of the mix, and I found it impossible to separate them.
About halfway into the ride, I forced myself to stop thinking about it. I put a Bob Seeger tape in the car stereo (I think it was an eight-track) and decided I would make a decision at the front door of the Press. An hour never went so quickly. There I was, facing the front door and the biggest decision of my nascent career.
Let me add that I was raised by the Golden Rule. My parents instilled fair play into all of us. There were six kids in the family and, to a kid, we all found a way to befriend those on the playground who were otherwise friendless. It was not goodness, it was just expected.
I kept putting off the decision as I slowly climbed the stairs to the building. There were 10 of them. And I took my time with each. I kept putting off the decision and decided that once I grabbed the handle of the door, I would make up my mind.
I touched the door and said to myself: “I’m going to go with it.”
I ambled up to the city editor. “Bill,” I said, “I think I got a hell of a story. He talked to me.”
The city editor sprang into action so we could get it into that afternoon’s edition. He assigned the best rewrite man on the paper (some would say one of the best in the country) to sit down with me and take my notes. I read them to him. He asked me some questions. “Are you sure he said that?” he would ask. I would look at my leg or other note-sullied skin and read my notes and reply: “Positive.”
Each page was ripped from the rewrite man’s typewriter and rushed to the composing room, where they were already remaking Page 1. We got it in the first edition. It was a banner headline that used the most damning quote: “We were led like blind fools.” It referred to the officers.
I was the toast of the city room. That evening, gathering my stuff in preparation for going home, one of my buddies said: “You look bummed out, wanna go have a beer?” “Nah,” I said, “I think I just want to go home.”
That evening I got a call from Dan Rather, who, at the time was an ambitious reporter for CBS. He asked how he could contact McManus. My story had hummed across the wires and it was national news.
My feelings about McManus were swirling in my head. I knew that McManus would not likely talk to Rather. Still, I decided, in my own way, to protect the small-town kid who was suddenly thrust in the big-time spotlight.
“Dan,” I said, “I can’t give you that information. I have to protect my source.” He understood, and hung up. At least I had that to feel good about.