Remembering Mountain Eagle Editor Tom Gish

The local newspaper as democracy's messenger

For all the talk of the demise or irrelevancy of ink on paper, those of us who gathered last month in eastern Kentucky for the funeral of Mountain Eagle publisher and editor Tom Gish left with an even deeper belief in the essential role of the newspaper, especially the local newspaper, as democracy’s indispensable messenger.

For more than fifty years, Gish and his wife Pat published The Mountain Eagle. The paper’s wall in Whitesburg is covered with prestigious journalism awards, including two Elijah Lovejoys and the Zenger. But Tom Gish, who died on November 21 at the age of eighty-two, never had much use for being called a journalist.

He was a newspaperman.

The Eagle (motto: “It Screams!”) reported in depth on poverty, strip mining, coal miners’ health and safety, and other issues, making Whitesburg the first stop for national reporters and politicians trying to catch up with Tom’s understaffed, budget-challenged paper on such major stories. But the Eagle also covered—and challenged—local school boards that didn’t care about children, county government that regularly failed the public, and economic development ‘experts’ who mostly developed their own incomes.

Those investigative articles and editorials—along with reports of family reunions, molasses stir-offs and wooly worms’ winter warnings—were put into the hands of Letcher County readers every week because Tom Gish passionately believed that his fellow mountaineers had just as much need and just as much right to be fully informed as any newspaper reader in Boston or Chicago. As Julie Ardery told readers of the online Daily Yonder, Tom “proved rural journalism could have standards as high and stories as hard-hitting as any in the country.”

Because Tom and Pat spoke truth to power, their family was ostracized and the Eagle was subjected to threats, advertiser boycotts, and even a firebombing (after which the Gishes defiantly changed the newspaper’s banner to “It Still Screams!”). They kept at it, not because they thought of themselves as crusaders but because, as Pat said, “We were just doing what we thought a newspaper was supposed to do.”

Tom’s outrage at what he saw as betrayals of the public interest was in full form during one of my last visits with him, just before the election. Although gravely ill, he had the energy to be furious about what he considered the failure of the national media to dig deeply into the candidates’ positions on matters of real importance. “They endlessly cover the silly stuff,” he said. “There’s no excuse for not being able to explain serious issues in a way that people can understand and respond to.”

A former wire-service reporter who took pride in his ability to make sense of any subject—on deadline—Tom had nothing but contempt for editors who might pass on a story or dumb it down to a few bland inches of text because they thought it too complex for readers to grasp. He wanted Eagle reporters to report thoroughly, incorporate their own views if warranted, and never talk down to readers. That, he felt, was what newspapers can and should do.

“Tom took the Founding Fathers at their word: A free people, properly informed, will seek justice and their elected representatives will ensure that all men and women are treated equally and receive their fair share of the bounties that are bestowed upon us all,” former Eagle reporter Jim Branscome said in words read at the funeral. “In a time when the ethos of the age is ‘every man for himself and government is the enemy,’ Tom still believed that government could be made to serve the people, to ensure that all have food on the table, an opportunity for a job, the right to have their property protected, and the right to be happy, joyous and free. That is the measure of Tom Gish and, sadly, a marker of how far we have strayed in journalism, politics and business that he seemed to be in a distinct minority.”

Newspapers do face serious financial and other challenges today, but Tom Gish faced them every week for half a century and prevailed and published until the end. His Eagle, now edited by his son Ben, still screams from a newsprint perch—a hopeful sign in dark times that newspapers still matter and can—must—survive.

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Phil Primack is a freelance writer and editor based in Medford, Mass. He worked for The Mountain Eagle during the 1970s.