By: Barbara Bedway
Few people likely knew better than Tom Gish that there’s no such thing as a strictly local story. As editor and publisher of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., Gish and his wife, Pat, spent more than a half-century tackling the previously untouchable stories of the Appalachian coal fields ? unsafe mines and environmental degradation, pervasive poverty, and police and government corruption. His death in November at the age of 82 was no local story, either: Obituaries nationwide noted that the couple’s work catalyzed Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and shaped legislation on mine safety, Black Lung compensation, Head Start, and food stamps.
Along the way, they endured floods, threats of violence, advertising boycotts, and even a firebombing of the Eagle’s office. In November 2006, the newspaper’s election-eve issue mysteriously disappeared from county newsstands.
“He and Mom never set out to be crusaders, they were just doing their job the way they were trained,” observes Ben Gish, the Eagle’s current editor and one of five Gish children. “Everything else came out of that. What kept him going was, he always believed things would get better.”
The Gishes bought the paper in 1957 when its motto, “A Friendly Non-Partisan Weekly Newspaper Published Every Thursday,” reflected its ambitions. They changed the motto back to the one found on much older editions, “It Screams,” and set out to cover ? and discover ? what local news was.
“We didn’t know that one of every two mountain adults couldn’t read or write,” the Gishes noted in a 2000 article. “We didn’t know that tens of thousands of families had been plunged into the extremes of poverty.”
They also quickly learned that the definition of “news” included whatever the paper’s local columnists chose to chronicle, including births, deaths, weddings, graduations, out-of-town visitors, and seasonal reflections. Without them, subscriptions would drop like a stone.
“Tom’s first law was: Don’t monkey with the way the community columnists write. You were not to change a phrase of their copy,” recalls Bill Bishop, now editor of The Daily Yonder and a reporter at the Eagle from 1975 to 1977. “He got tremendous support from people up in the hollers, who considered the Eagle their paper.”
Though the 1974 firebombing ? reportedly linked to the paper’s probe of the local police ? destroyed much of the Mountain Eagle’s equipment and most of its files, the couple managed to get out the next issue from their home, temporarily changing the motto to “It Still Screams.”
In a 1974 New York Times story about the firebombing, Wayne King wrote of Gish that “his newspaper, in fact, strikes a surprisingly graceful balance between intensive and skillfully written analyses of complex issues and long, bucolic ramblings from scores of country correspondents who write in from places like Blair Branch, Sandlick and Jeremiah.”
That balance is the key, claims Thomas E. Bethell, a former reporter and now an Eagle contributing writer: “It won’t permanently inoculate The Eagle against all the diseases afflicting newspapers everywhere, but for now it keeps readers loyal, as the paper’s advertisers can attest.”
“Tom believed you should treat readers with respect, and assume they’re smart and interested in everything you’re interested in,” Bishop notes. “He’d tear someone’s throat out if he were in a typical newsroom now, and heard some discussion of what a ‘typical reader’ is.” He adds that Gish wanted most of all for news to get out, and didn’t care who got it first. When the Scotia Mine near Whitesburg exploded twice in 1976, killing 26 people, the Eagle became makeshift news central for the big daily papers.
“We had the paper all laid out, ready to go to press,” Bishop recalls. “He let reporters take what they wanted. A New York Times reporter dictated his story reading off the pasted-up flats.” Gish was also quick to expand the paper as needed: When local widows testified at a Congressional hearing into the 1981 explosion in which eight miners died, Gish ran their entire testimony.
The Gishes, married for 60 years, met at the University of Kentucky, where Pat convinced her husband-to-be, the son of a coal miner, to switch from engineering to her major, journalism. The two worked for eight years ? Tom covering the state capital for United Press, and Pat at the then- Lexington Leader ? before buying the Mountain Eagle.
In the 1990s, Gish launched the popular “Speak Your Piece,” a form of early community blogging. People could call into a special line at the paper to have their say, and, so long as they are not libelous, the messages were typed up and appeared in the paper, unfiltered and anonymous. The “postings” range from birthday greetings and very personal opinions (“To a man in Linefork: All you have now is a pill-headed skank. You had a good woman and you were just too stupid to see that”) to short-form memoir. In the 1990s, state police used information that appeared there to aid a criminal investigation of county officials.
Mimi Pickering, a filmmaker at work on a documentary about the Gishes and the Mountain Eagle (the paper’s current paid circulation is about 6,100) notes the couple took some heat from other editors and publishers for allowing the unsigned postings in the paper, “but Tom knew well that in a small town, to speak out meant you could lose a job fast.”
The Gishes’ awards include the Society of Professional Journalists’ Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award, the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award, and two Elijah Parish Lovejoy Awards. In 2005 the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues honored the couple with the first Gish Award, for rural journalists who “demonstrate courage, tenacity and integrity.”
In 1969, CBS correspondent Charles Kuralt asked Tom Gish why he didn’t just leave Whitesburg and its unrelenting menace of threats and boycotts. Gish laughed at the question and answered, “That would amount to a kind of surrendering that I just can’t do.”