Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Last Crusading Newspaperman?

I met "The Mountain Eagle" owner/publisher Tom Gish and his wife Pat several times, but I didn't really know them personally. Oh I KNEW them, but mainly from the pages of their crusading weekly paper published in Whitesburg, Kentucky. That newspaper had a huge following across all of Appalachia and nationally because it was at the epicenter of so much political ferment in our region, particularly the rising chorus against the national disgrace of strip mining. We returned from our Thanksgiving road trip to discover belatedly that Tom Gish died a little over a week ago in Pikesville. He was 82.

When Tom and Pat bought "The Mountain Eagle" in 1956, the motto on its masthead read "A Friendly Non-Partisan Weekly Newspaper Published Every Thursday." The Gishes changed the motto to "It Screams" and began actually covering the news, like what the elected officials were up to. Apparently, no newspaper reporter had ever attended meetings of the Letcher County Fiscal Court, the approximate equivalent of our County Commission. Those meetings turned out to be secret conclaves of good ole boys who took payoffs from the coal industry, and the Gishes began exposing the corruption. The local Fiscal Court promptly passed a resolution banning "The Mountain Eagle" from its meetings. "The Eagle" went anyway, and in the face of death threats helped push through the first open meetings law in Kentucky history.

The Gishes also investigated the local Whitesburg police force on accusations that they were harassing and even physically abusing teenagers. One result of that investigation was that a police officer paid arsonists to throw a kerosene firebomb through a window at the newspaper, destroying the building. A week later the Gishes published the paper from their front porch with the motto changed to "It Still Screams." Tom Gish said he later learned that coal company money was behind the crime.

Both Tom and Pat were absolutely fearless and determined to tell the truth no matter the cost. They were the enemies of "business as usual," which meant the rule of "a handful of very powerful interests who want to control every single thing in the county, no disagreements, no opposition, no hints of dissent to be tolerated — the old way of doing things — fire the coal miner who wants a union, don't re-hire the teacher who disagrees, take away the food stamps, the free medications, the welfare checks of anyone who dares express a thought of his own," as the Gishes would later characterize what they were up against.

In recent years they supported the political insurgency of reformer Carroll Smith (a Republican, incidentally) who ran for and won the office of Chief Judge Executive, the equivalent (more or less) of our County Commission chair. Smith successfully held that office for a couple of terms and then was defeated on a campaign of outrageous lies in 2006. But he was only defeated because his opponents (Democrats, incidentally) were "swift-boating" him and managed to buy up every newstand copy of "The Mountain Eagle" the week before the election because that edition of the paper printed the truth behind the lies. (Tom & Pat editorialized about that "nasty trick" a week later.)

I served with Tom and Pat on an advisory board that was helping Elizabeth Barret produce a documentary film about the murder of a Canadian filmmaker in Letcher County in 1967, a crime that put Letcher County in an unwelcome international spotlight and which the Gishes tended to see as yet another expression of a closed, corrupt political system.

"The Mountain Eagle" is now being edited by son Ben Gish, who's been at the helm for several years now. The paper, among its many accomplishments as a fearless beacon for journalistic truth, gave a start to many young reporters who went on to regional and national prominence. Several of them came back to Whitesburg to speak at Tom Gish's funeral.

We might not see Tom Gish's like again, at least not in rural Appalachia. We can, of course, always hope -- and pray -- that courageous journalists will rise perennial among our ranks, whether by means of old-fashioned news-print or through the so far unfettered and newfangled InnerTubes.

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