Monday, September 30, 2019

Top reporters on coal industry accept Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity, integrity in rural journalism

Paul J. Nyden (deceased), Ken Ward Jr. and Howard Berkes
Three leaders in coverage of the coal industry in Central Appalachia and elsewhere received the nation's only award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism Thursday night.

The Tom and Pat Gish Award, named for the late editor-publishers of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., went to Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette-Mail; his mentor at the Gazette, the late Paul J. Nyden; and Howard Berkes, who retired this year as NPR's rural correspondent.

"Our three honorees join a long list of rural journalists who have demonstrated the courage, integrity and tenacity that is so often necessary to do good journalism in rural areas. In their own special ways, they live up to the example set by Tom and Pat Gish," said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, which presents the award (and publishes The Rural Blog).

The presentations at the institute's annual Al Smith Awards Dinner had a strong West Virginia presence. West Virginia University law professor Pat McGinley accepted for Nyden, and Berkes talked about how he uncovered an epidemic of black-lung disease among coal miners in eastern Kentucky, Virginia and southern West Virginia that federal regulators had ignored or even denied.

Ben Gish, right, presents a Gish Award to Howard Berkes
Berkes said he had received many awards in his career, but puts the Gish Award at the top of the list because it is named for the Gishes, whom he knew. The awards were presented by their son, Ben Gish, publisher of The Mountain Eagle.

Ward is "the nation's best reporter on the coal industry," Cross told the crowd of 235 at the dinner in Lexington, Ky.

Ward said Nyden believed there were only two rules in journalism: Number one, "You find out who the bad guys are and you screw 'em." Number two? "You screw 'em again."

Cross said that might make non-journalists in the crowd wonder about objectivity in journalism. He said true objectivity is an impossible goal, but good journalists follow an objective method, testing all the information they get and putting it through a rigorous editing process.

Nyden's "hard-hitting reporting was matched by his kind personality," Cross said. "When he died last year, one former Gazette journalist wrote, 'Paul Nyden had an extraordinary talent I’ve never seen in a reporter, before or since. He could excoriate people in print one day and have them as guests at parties the next.' And that, of course, is a key to developing good sources, which produce good stories."

David Thompson, center, with KPA President-Elect Jeff Jobe,
left, and KPA President Jay Nolan (Photo by Claudia Nolan)
The Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by a Kentuckian went to Kentucky Press Association Executive Director David Thompson, who has been in the job for 36 years, longer than any other current newspaper-association executive in North America. He was recognized for his long service and his recent lobbying to preserve state open-government laws. For a story on Thompson by Mike Scogin of the News-Graphic of Georgetown, his hometown, click here. He also wrote an editorial.

The guest speaker at the dinner was political commentator Howard Fineman, who covered coal and energy for the Louisville Courier Journal 40 years ago. A Pittsburgh native, he fondly recalled his reporting experiences in Eastern Kentucky. He filled in for Chuck Todd of NBC News, who was forced to stay in Washington because of the presidential impeachment news.

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