Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Mo. editor-publisher wins Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity, integrity in rural journalism

PLATTE CITY, Mo. – Ivan Foley, a Missouri editor and publisher who has pushed accountability journalism and open government in the face of competition, intimidation and retribution, is the winner of the 2016 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism, given by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog.

Ivan Foley in the Landmark office
At The Platte County Landmark in Platte City, just north of Kansas City, Foley has made a career of holding accountable public officials and those who would hold public office.

“He is the best advocate for the Missouri Sunshine Law of any journalist I know,” both to the public and government officials who often need “re-educating,” wrote Bill Hankins, who was a writer and photographer for the Landmark for 13 years, in nominating Foley.

“Because he always holds officials’ feet to the fire, especially when it comes to spending tax dollars, Ivan often runs counter to the local pet projects of the powers that be,” wrote Hankins, a member of the Missouri Photojournalism Hall of Fame. “He often makes people mad … just by holding those projects up to the light to see if they sparkle or not. Some examples are when contracts had the taint of sweetheart deals, or when the school board decided to spend $500,000 for artificial turf for the football field.”

Many Landmark stories have reported violations of open-government laws, and Foley’s editorial column endorses candidates in local elections, a rarity for weekly newspapers. “Although conservative by nature and politics, Ivan is red-and-blue color-blind when it comes to critiquing the performances of local politicians,” Hankins wrote.

Landmark stories in 2012 about an ambulance district board chair getting an insider deal on a land sale resulted in the official’s corruption conviction. The same year, the paper investigated a county commissioner’s vote to award a contract to the high bidder, and his connections with the bidder. The commissioner didn’t seek re-election in 2014. Earlier, Landmark stories and columns revealed that the high-school athletic director’s son was in a group that stole a large carving of the school mascot, an incident the officials tried to cover up; and made county officials delay a raise they had granted themselves.

After the pay-raise articles in 1997, the county commission repeatedly denied the Landmark’s low bid to publish the county’s public notices. After several 1998 stories about questionable behavior by city police officers, a former officer confronted Foley in a threatening manner, but the editor “stood his ground,” Hankins wrote. Early in the next decade, after Foley reported several Sunshine Law violations by the mayor and questioned his plan to use city funds for a motorcycle rally, a friend of the mayor threatened to “punch his lights out.”

“Ivan sets a great example for journalism in rural America, where it’s usually harder to do good journalism than in metropolitan areas,” said Al Cross, director of the Institute, based at the University of Kentucky.

Foley, 53, has worked at the Landmark since 1982, when he began managing it at age 19. His father, Dwayne Foley, had bought the paper in 1979 but died of a heart attack not long afterward. Foley bought the paper from his mother, Ethel Mae Foley, in 2002. The county has two other newspapers, including one in Platte City; the Landmark has the largest circulation.

“He has grown over the years as an editor not because of some great foundation of a university journalism education,” Hankins wrote. “Rather, his editorial education was trial by fire. The fire has produced a steely editor, whose tenacity, courage and integrity help make this county what it is.”

Foley will be honored Sept. 29 at the Institute for Rural Journalism’s annual Al Smith Awards Dinner in Lexington, Ky., and receive the award Oct. 1 at his state press association convention in Branson, Mo. “The Missouri Press Association congratulates Ivan Foley for his determination in presenting the news that is important to his community,” MPA Executive Director Mark Maassen said.

The Tom and Pat Gish Award is named for the couple who published The Mountain Eagle at Whitesburg, Ky., for more than 50 years and became nationally known for their battles with coal operators and corrupt politicians, and the firebombing of their office by a Whitesburg policeman. Past winners of the award have been the Gishes; the Ezzell family of The Canadian Record in Texas; publisher Jim Prince and former publisher Stan Dearman of The Neshoba Democrat in Philadelphia, Miss.; Samantha Swindler, columnist for The Oregonian, for her work in Kentucky and Texas; Stanley Nelson and the Concordia Sentinel of Ferriday, La.; Jonathan and Susan Austin of the U.S. Virgin Islands for their work in Yancey County, North Carolina; Landon Wills of the McLean County News in Calhoun, Ky.; and the Trapp family of the Rio Grande Sun in Española, N.M.

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