Pat Gish’s legacy, as well as husband Tom’s, should inspire today’s Appalachian reporters

TomPatGish_HL_James KenneyEastern Kentucky laid to rest one of its fiercest advocates this week: Pat Gish, who with her husband Tom, ran The Mountain Eagle weekly newspaper in Whitesburg, Ky., for more than 50 years. (Lexington Herald-Leader photo by James Kenney, used with permission: Pat, with husband Tom)

The Gish’s “spoke truth to power . . . through their crusading weekly newspaper,” writes the Lexington Herald-Leader’s Bill Estep in this excellent piece about Pat’s life and legacy. From the piece: “‘We’ve lost another true bulldog of journalism. Pat and Tom were inseparable when it came to what they believed was right and wrong and neither hesitated to go after the truth,’ said David Thompson, executive director of the Kentucky Press Association.”

The Gish’s were never afraid to print the truth about local politics and the abuses of the coal industry against miners and communities, even though printing that truth in the local paper at that time was practically unheard of. Even after threats, business boycotts of the paper, dropped ads, and after The Mountain Eagle office was firebombed by a police officer, the Gish’s kept publishing their paper.

They knew they had a duty to their community, and they helped uplift it and propel it forward. “We are convinced that knowledge is power and that the more the Eagle can help inform its readers about local and far-away developments that affect them, the more good things can happen,” said the couple in a 2000 commentary.

The Gish’s were champions of rural journalism, writes Tim Mandell of The Rural Blog, which is published by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. The Institute awards the Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism in honor of the Gish’s every year.

But they were also champions of Appalachia, and the people who inhabit it. As Center for Rural Strategies Director Dee Davis wrote in a reflection on Pat Gish in the Daily Yonder this week: “The dearest lesson I learned from their reflection was something they took from Tom’s dad, a Letcher County mine foreman. People here are smart. They have had to make do with less. They are creative. They work hard. Don’t talk down to them. She never did.”

The Gish’s wrote the stories they did, and published the paper they did, because they believed in Appalachia and the bright future that could be had there if only the old power structures were exposed and made to account for the abuses they had been committing against the everyday folks of the region for decades, unchecked. They understood that a weekly, community newspaper is a powerful tool that can put power back in the hands of the people, and that the power of the news was not to be taken for granted.

They wielded their mighty pens for the betterment of the region, and that should be a firm example to other journalists in Appalachia that they, too, have the ability to shape a different conversation that will propel the region forward. This ability, so expertly employed by the Gish’s, should be what every Appalachian weekly newspaper strives to accomplish.