Friday, May 6, 2016

Famous Speech Friday: Dorothy Fuldheim on Kent State shooting

Forty-six years ago this week, there were a few things that were unusual about Dorothy Fuldheim's evening commentary on WEWS-TV on May 4, 1970. For one thing, "Cleveland's First Lady of the Airwaves" finished the piece weeping in front of the camera. For another thing, nearly every call that came into the station that night was critical of the beloved Fuldheim. "Why are you sorry for those deaths?" one such caller complained. "Too bad the National Guard didn't kill more."

Fuldheim had been at Kent State University earlier that day, where National Guardsmen had shot 13 students, killing four, after weeks of campus protests following President Richard Nixon's announcement that the war in Vietnam would now spread to Cambodia. Fuldheim came away from reporting at Kent State that day anguished and raw, asking, "Since when do we shoot our own children?"

Kent State was far from the first controversial issue Fuldheim had tackled in her years in public speaking. As a child, her father took her to courthouses to learn how to speak like a lawyer. In 1918, the social activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams approached her about delivering an antiwar speech, after seeing Fuldheim's fiery performance in a local theater group. After that, Fuldheim began charging $10 a speech, speaking on topics from birth control to public utilities. Men sometimes groaned when they saw a woman approach the podium, she recalled, but she calculated that she had given 3000 speeches in 20 years (that's an average of one speech every 2.5 days).

She made the transition to reporting and commentary as a way to collect more information for her speeches, and began broadcasting in 1944 on Cleveland radio and in 1947 on television. It's said she was the first woman to do a live television broadcast in the U.S., and the first to host her own show. She interviewed presidents, popes, Albert Einstein, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and her direct and witty observations gained her thousands of fans.

Those fans had cheered when, just a few weeks before Kent State, Fuldheim threw Yippie Jerry Rubin off her program for his lewd remarks. Viewers who thought that she was holding back the tide against the counter culture were dismayed by her commentary on May 4.

Here's most of that night's commentary, reprinted in Dorothy Fuldheim: The First Lady of Television News by Patricia M. Mote:
There were no guns in the hands of the four who were killed and the nine who were wounded-they had no weapons, no iron rods in their hands, they were giving no speeches. Their sin was protesting against the war and the four that were killed were only bystanders. They were there to see what was going on; they were students who were curious about the excitement. There were crowds gathering on the campus to protest the war do they came along to see what was happening. No one told them that the governor of the state had called out the National Guard. The governor apparently decided it would show these long-haired troublemakers that protest meetings were not to be tolerated. There was some jostling, shouting and rock throwing but what prompted the National Guard to shoot? And who gave the National Guard the bullets? Who ordered the use of them? Since when do we shoot our own children? Ask the parents of these young people how they feel. When will their anguish be over? Tortured at the thought that their children were killed and without a reason, they exist with a pain in their hearts.
As the angry letters and calls poured into the WEWS station, Fuldheim offered to resign--an offer her boss at the station swiftly refused. Later, she responded to her critics on air, saying that she was "bewildered" at the intensity of feeling her report unleashed. (You can read parts of that commentary here.)

What can you learn from Fuldheim's famous speech?
  • Your speech is also a performance.You don't have to be a full-fledged actor when you speak, but it doesn't hurt to remember that most speeches do tell a story in front of an audience. Fuldheim said she drew heavily on her theater experiences to set a scene and tell a story when she delivered her commentaries, a talent that comes through when she describes the face-off between the National Guard and the students.
  • Your emotional speech could lead to an emotional response. Fuldheim didn't hold back any of her emotions--rage, confusion, despair-- when she went on the air that night. She may have been bewildered by the fact that the response was so negative, but I don't think it's bewildering that the response was so passionate. Speaking in frank and emotional terms can set the "rules of engagement" for a conversation with an audience, encouraging them to feel and respond in kind.
  • Learn how to respond--not react to critics. The WEWS station manager remembers the days after Kent State as the first time he had ever seen Fuldheim "really shaken," in 25 years of work together. But she thoughtfully waited more than two months to respond to the criticism, in an on-air commentary that did not apologize for what she had said on May 4. Instead, she simply described the kind of blowback she had received--including some death threats--and explained again why she felt the events at Kent State had failed the students, the National Guard, and their country.
Here's a much later video, Fuldheim's commentary on her 86th birthday, when she was still broadcasting. It conveys a lot of her inimitable style of speaking: Video Vault: Dorothy Fuldheim's 'The House I Live In' commentary

(Freelance writer Becky Ham contributed this Famous Speech Friday post)