Kent State – 50 Years Ago and How the AP Blew It
It was 50 years ago today, May 4, 2020, that four students at Kent State University in Ohio were killed by National Guardsmen who had been called out to quell an antiwar protest.
In 1970, the Vietnam War was still raging in Southeast Asia and was the source of a generational rift between those who had lived through World Wars I and II and the Great Depression and their children.
Most stories that you’ll read about this photo talk about it going out on the Associated Press (AP) wire and then winning the Pulitzer Prize for photography.
There’s much more to this story:
In the summer of 1969, John Filo had worked as a summer intern at The Valley News Dispatch, a small daily newspaper that served the northeast suburbs of Allegheny County, as well as New Kensington and other nearby communities.
Most people outside of that community have never heard of that newspaper. Why would they? It covered local issues: local politics, police reports, high school sports and recipes provided by mothers and grandmothers.
As summer wound down, John returned to school at Kent State, and life went on uneventfully. John was now one of countless former summer interns that many newspapers had that year and would have in future years.
On May 4, John took a number of photos during the Kent State protests, including the moments immediately after the shootings.
He knew that he had something big, but he didn’t know who to contact. This predated social media and mobile phones and even computers and e-mail.
He called the AP and explained who he was and what he had photographed. The AP wasn’t interested.
Who are you, kid? Not interested. Stop wasting our time.
Not sure what to do next, John then called The Valley News Dispatch. The editors were interested. They had read a couple of headlines on the wire, and they wanted to know more.
Come on in, and let’s see what you have.
“Come on in” meant driving the 100 or so miles from Kent State to Tarentum, which John did.
After John arrived and a few pleasantries were exchanged, they rushed to the newspaper’s photo lab and developed the film, made a contact sheet and looked at what John had taken. I don’t know if it was a joint effort, or if the photo editors made the selection.
In any case, they selected the photo that you see here and put it out on the wire – ironically, the AP wire – as a Valley News Dispatch photograph. It appeared in major newspapers and publications immediately.
When John Filo later won the Pulitzer Prize, the Valley News Dispatch was able to share in that honor.
The AP had dismissed the young photographer and therefore lost its opportunity at a Pulitzer. I wonder how that went down in the offices of the veteran news agency.
This story was told to me in the 1990s by one of the longtime editors at The Valley News Dispatch. If you look at official versions of the photo, you should see “Valley News Dispatch” in the credit line.
In some later versions of the photo, the post that appears to be growing from the head of the girl who was on one knee was removed. Ideally, John should have stepped to the left or to the right a few feet, but real life doesn’t always allow these kind of luxuries.
What you see here is the unedited version.