Monday, November 24, 2008

Tom Gish, buried today, taught rural journalists there's almost no such thing as a strictly local story

Tom Gish, the renowned rural journalist who died Friday, was remembered yesterday and today as an editor-publisher whose influence went far beyond the Kentucky mountains where he lived and worked with his wife and newspaper partner, Pat, and their editor son Ben. (1968 photo by Thomas N. Bethell)

"The Mountain Eagle’s reach to legislators and the national and international press corps shaped legislation ranging from food stamps, Head Start, Title I of the education act, Black Lung compensation, mine safety legislation, strip-mining legislation, housing assistance, to name only a few – all incubated in a weekly newspaper," wrote former Eagle reporter Jim Brancsome. His remarks were read at today's funeral by David Hawpe, editorial director of The (Louisville) Courier-Journal, who said Tom and Pat Gish "gave me the foundation for much of the work I've done as a journalist." For an Associated Press story on the funeral, click here.

Another former Eagle reporter, Bill Bishop, wrote on his Daily Yonder yesterday: "Tom and Pat wrote some of the first stories about the poverty that came with the post-war depression in the coalfields. Other reporters followed the Eagle’s reporting. They would read a story in the Whitesburg paper and then trek down to Eastern Kentucky to see things for themselves. Invariably they’d wind up in Whitesburg and following Tom on a personally guided tour of the region. The War on Poverty began with stories coming from Eastern Kentucky. In reality, Lyndon Johnson’s attention to the nation’s poorest people was directed by reporting done by Tom and Pat Gish."

Bishop writes that the Gishes "taught rural America ... that you can work locally and have a national impact. He quotes another former reporter and Gish friend, Thomas N. Bethell: “One of the many reasons why Tom and Pat are great journalists is that they have always understood that there is almost no such thing as a strictly local story, and they have been willing to follow the story wherever it takes them. That, surely, should be a model and a mantra for rural journalists wherever they are.” (Read more)

Taking on the coal industry, bad schools, corrupt officials and bad police sometimes had a high price. In 1974, the Eagle office was firebombed by a city policeman supposedly upset about stories on police harassment of young people. (Tom Gish told a TV interviewer that state police had evidence that the cop was paid by a coal operator.) The Gishes' front porch became the newspaper office, and the paper's motto, "It Screams," became "It Still Screams."

“It expresses a determination to scream out from the local level to Frankfort to Washington to the people of the country that this is something that needs to be addressed and this is something we’re not going to stop shouting about,” lawyer and former state representative Steve Cawood of Pineville, Ky., told Howard Berkes of National Public Radio today. For the NPR story, click here. For a story from Editor & Publisher, go here. For more on the Gishes, go to or click here.

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