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Robert Giles, Nieman Foundation curator who oversaw Kent State shootings coverage, dies at 90

Former Nieman Foundation curator Robert Giles and his wife, Nancy, at a farewell gathering in 2011 shortly before he retired. Photo by Lisa Abitbol/Nieman FoundationLisa Abitbol

On May 4, 1970, the day that National Guard troops shot and killed four students at Kent State University in Ohio, Bob Giles was the managing editor of the nearby Akron Beacon Journal, preparing the paper for its afternoon press run.

Covering the student protests on the scene was Jeff Sallot, a campus freelancer who was graduating that semester from Kent State. Sallot later told Mr. Giles that when the Guardsmen began shooting, he was close enough to see “a clump of dirt near me puff up where a shot hit the ground.”

Soon after the shots were fired, a more seasoned United Press International reporter filed a breaking report from a National Guard command post that said two students and two Guardsmen had been killed, but Sallot told his Beacon Journal editors by phone that all four of the dead were students.


Mr. Giles had to decide what information to give his paper’s readers: the eyewitness observations of a freshly minted reporter, or the account from a seasoned wire service staffer who wasn’t close to the action. " ‘Let’s go with Jeff,’ I ordered, almost without hesitation,” he wrote in his 2020 book “When Truth Mattered: The Kent State Shootings 50 Years Later.”

The Beacon Journal was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for its Kent State coverage, and the calm acuity under pressure that Mr. Giles showed that day served him throughout his career, including as curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. An author, journalist, and teacher, he was 90 when he died last Monday of metastatic melanoma while in hospice care in Traverse City, Mich., where lived in retirement.

As curator from 2000 to 2011, Mr. Giles “was a thoughtful leader who provided a lot of support for his fellows,” said Stefanie Friedhoff, who was in the first Nieman class that Mr. Giles oversaw. “He took the curatorship very seriously and always understood it as more than just shepherding along an existing program.”


Mr. Giles extended the foundation’s reach “in important and lasting ways,” said Ann Marie Lipinski, who succeeded him as curator, in the foundation’s tribute.

“Nieman Lab and Nieman Storyboard are the direct result of his leadership, helping to expand Nieman’s impact well beyond the campus experience,” she said.

Along with his late wife, Nancy, who died in 2021, Mr. Giles also “worked tirelessly to create a home away from home” for journalists who arrived from around the world, Lipinski said.

Among them were Friedhoff, whose post-Nieman jobs included working for Mr. Giles at the foundation and serving as a senior policy adviser with the White House COVID-19 Response Team. She is now a Brown University associate professor and cofounder and codirector of the Information Futures Lab.

“They were real mentors. They really were a team,” Friedhoff said of Nancy and Bob Giles.

She added that Mr. Giles, who had been a 1966 Nieman fellow in an all-male class, worked to attract Nieman fellows from diverse backgrounds and places, ensuring that more women and people of color participated.

He did so, she said, in a way that was “intentional, visionary — not creating a lot of fuss about it, but getting the job done.”

“Bob was a man of vision,” wrote Alfredo Corchado, a 2009 Nieman fellow who is the Mexico border correspondent for the Dallas Morning News, in an email. “From the first day I met him, he displayed generosity, not just because he believed in me, but because, he later told me, he needed to do what he could to help America’s newsrooms mirror the population.”


Robert Hartmann Giles was born on June 6, 1933, in Cleveland, where he was the son of Robert Hamilton Giles, an electrical engineer, and Grace Hartmann Giles, a librarian whose avid reading was inspirational while young Bob was growing up.

“My dad was a massive Cleveland sports fan,” said his daughter, Megan Giles Cooney of Philadelphia.

He also shared, with his father, a love of Dixieland jazz. The two sometimes played banjo together, and Mr. Giles performed with jazz bands throughout his life, including in Traverse City.

“Growing up in a middle-class neighborhood on Cleveland’s west side, news seemed to be a focus of dinnertime discussions,” he said in a 2020 interview with

“News was a focus,” he said, “but so was truth and justice.”

Mr. Giles went to John Marshall High School in Cleveland, graduated from DePauw University in Indiana with a bachelor’s degree in English, and received a master’s from Columbia Journalism School in New York City.

After Columbia, he served in the Army for two years, from 1956 to 1958, stationed in Virginia.

In 1960, he married Nancy Morgan, a psychologist who — having been the spouse of a Nieman fellow early in their marriage — worked to ensure that spouses, partners, and children of fellows had places to live, work, and attend school during the years Mr. Giles was curator.


At the Akron Beacon Journal, Mr. Giles rose from reporter to top editor, and then was a professional-in-residence at the University of Kansas School of Journalism.

From there he became executive editor at the Democrat & Chronicle and Times-Union newspapers in Rochester, N.Y., and then executive editor at the Detroit News.

In Detroit, he green-lighted Deb Price’s column on gay rights and gay life, the first such regular feature in a US newspaper.

“While newspapers across America, including our own, have increased news coverage of gay issues, no voice is regularly heard that looks at life from a gay perspective,” he wrote to introduce her column to readers.

Mr. Giles told The New York Times for Price’s 2020 obit that the bigoted response by some readers made him all the more determined to support the column.

He left the Detroit News in 1997 and, after a stint at the Freedom Forum’s Media Studies Center in New York, was named curator of the Nieman Foundation.

As curator, “he gave people opportunities,” said Friedhoff, who is from Germany.

“He was not the kind of person who needed to have the spotlight at all times,” she said. “He was very happy to build people up, and I was one of the people who had the good fortune to have opportunities through him.”


In addition to his daughter, Megan, Mr. Giles leaves two sons, David of Cincinnati and Robert of Springfield, Va.; a sister, Lois Eynon of Fort Collins, Colo.; and six grandchildren.

A memorial gathering for next year will be announced.

When Mr. Giles wrote his book about the Kent State shootings and the media response, a key research resource was the memories of his wife, Nancy. “I think she was a very good touchstone for him to go back and flush out some of the details,” their daughter said.

He told the Journalism History podcast that he had read “many of the Kent State books that had been written since 1970, but nobody had told the story of the truth telling” that took place on deadline in the Beacon Journal newsroom, where editors took a chance on a new reporter and, as a result, reported accurately what had happened and contradicted a false UPI report.

“The idea that Guardsmen were killed would have reinforced the conspiracy theory that there were radicals on campus,” Mr. Giles told in 2020. “UPI sent a revised lede after they heard our stories. Because of our reporting, the truth got straightened out.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at