Year of Publication

2017

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

College

Arts and Sciences

Department

History

First Advisor

Dr. Tracy Campbell

Abstract

In most ways, The Mountain Eagle is an ordinary community oriented weekly newspaper, and indeed, a close examination of the paper will reveal that it focuses mostly on community news in Letcher County Kentucky, a small county in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. It carries holiday recipes, neighborhood news, and coverage of local government, school boards and sporting events. But a closer examination of the paper and its history reveals a different kind of community weekly. The Mountain Eagle is one of the most recognized, commented upon, and decorated community newspapers in the United States. Since Tom and Pat Gish took the paper over in 1957, the Gishes and their newspaper have been shunned by their neighbors, boycotted, and the paper’s offices were fire-bombed in 1974. And yet, the paper survived and continues to report the news, honesty and without bias.

Although Tom Gish was born and raised in the coal fields of Letcher County both Gishes were “city journalists” when they came to Whitesburg. Pat worked for The Lexington Leader and Tom managed the United Press Desk in the state capital of Frankfort. They met while studying Journalism at the University of Kentucky, and pursued careers in the field. Their desire to run a small-town newspaper brought them to Whitesburg, Tom’s hometown. Their insistence on doing their jobs the way they had been trained soon put them at odds with the Fiscal Court, the School Board, the coal operators, and the elites who ran Letcher County. Coal mining drove the economy, and the county operated on a near feudal basis, with people owing fealty to elected officials and coal companies, and none of the controlling interests liked the idea of seeing their activities on the front page.

This dissertation is a chronological examination of The Mountain Eagle and its publishers during period between 1957, when the Gishes took over the newspaper, to 1977, when the Federal Surface Mining Reclamation and Control Act was signed into law. During that period, Letcher County and the United States experienced the assassination of a president, the War on Poverty, the Vietnam War, and the widespread use of strip mining to gouge rich veins of coal out of the Appalachian Coalfields. Strip mining soon became the most common method of extracting coal in the country, and its effects on the steep hillsides of eastern Kentucky became the focus of much of The Eagle’s news and editorial activity.

Both Gishes said many times that it had never been their intention to become crusaders or to take on any particular group. But as they began to undertake what they saw as their primary job, that of reporting on the news of the county, they began to experience obstacles in reporting on civic activities, which by Kentucky law were supposed to be open to the public. In an introductory speech delivered to the Rotary Club in the county seat of Whitesburg, Tom Gish pointed out that while there were a lot of things about the newspaper that he liked and intended to keep, there were other areas where he thought the paper could be improved. One of those areas was in the coverage of civic events, primarily the meetings of the fiscal court, the various city councils, and the board of education, the first of the controlling bodies to come into conflict with the newspaper.

Pat Gish did most of the reporting, and when she started attending school board meetings, she learned that while she might be tolerated, she would certainly not be welcomed. The board initially told the paper that their meetings were closed, only one person at a time was allowed into the board chamber, and they were there to discuss their business with the board and then leave. Tom Gish informed them that the Kentucky Open Meetings Law gave the press access to public meetings and grudgingly, the board allowed Pat to attend. But they refused to provide her with a chair, so she had to stand during meetings that often lasted for several hours, even while she was pregnant with her second child. Tom Gish also began to attend meetings to provide a basis for the editorials he wrote asking for improvements in county-wide education. This came during a period when Kentucky Schools were under investigation by the state legislature and Whitesburg Attorney Harry Caudill, who represented the county in the General Assembly, chaired a committee that delivered a scathing report on Kentucky schools, and called particular attention to education in eastern Kentucky. Caudill’s guest editorials and Letters to the Editor began to appear in The Mountain Eagle during this period and marked the first phase of a long collaboration between Caudill and Gish that addressed a broad range of issues that affected the region. Not long afterward, one of the board members, the physician who had delivered Tom Gish and owned several businesses in the county, announced that he would withdraw his advertising from the paper and the “word went out” that teachers had been forbidden to purchase the paper. Tom Gish later said that newsstand sales had skyrocketed during this and subsequent boycotts.

Tom Gish joined his wife in covering the Letcher County Fiscal Court and they soon angered the judge and magistrates by reporting that magistrates had voted themselves a substantial pay raise. Although the court had initially welcomed the newspaper at meetings, they soon passed an ordinance to make at least part of their meetings closed. This was another violation of the Open Meetings Act and the Attorney General weighed in on the newspaper’s behalf. A long-running feud developed between The Eagle and the court that included several efforts to de-certify the paper as the newspaper with the largest circulation. This meant that all legal documents, including ordinances and other court actions had to be published in The Eagle before they became law. These publications, along with bond advertisements from coal companies and other legally required publications were a significant source of the newspaper’s income. The feud with the court finally came to a head in 1974 when the County Judge Executive and Sheriff ignored threats to blow the newspaper’s offices up just weeks before the paper was fire-bombed by a former Whitesburg City Police officer, who had resigned after being named in several articles concerning police brutality.

The Mountain Eagle’s involvement with the War on Poverty and its advocacy for strip mine regulation brought the paper into the national spotlight. Many of the national reporters who published articles on Appalachian poverty that captured the nation’s imagination and sympathy came directly through the offices of The Mountain Eagle, and the Gishes often served as their guides to eastern Kentucky. The New York Times’ initial report on the endemic poverty that plagued eastern Kentucky, which captured Senator John F. Kennedy’s attention during his campaign for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination, came after Times Reporter Calvin Trillen spent time at the Gish home in Whitesburg and toured the region with them. Tom and Pat Gish became deeply involved in efforts to alleviate suffering in the region and spent so much time testifying before congressional committees and on other poverty related activities during the War on Poverty, the paper often came out late and suffered financially. Tom Gish frequently wrote editorials that praised the federal government’s efforts, but just as often, his editorials were among the most scathing in the country, when he felt that it was too little, too late.

The newspaper had a complex relationship with the coal industry. Tom Gish’s father was a mine superintendent with South East Coal Company, one of the larger companies in the county. Tom saw underground coal mining as the logical basis for the economy in the region, but he also advocated for diversifying the economy so it would not be entirely dependent on a single industry. When he visited a strip mine in eastern Letcher County with his father Ben, both men were horrified at the destruction visited on a small community there and Tom began to call for strip mining to be outlawed all together or at the very least, strictly regulated. This began a twenty-year struggle that finally came to fruition with the 1977 Federal Surface Mining Reclamation and Control Act. But the legislation was far from perfect and not only codified strip mining in federal law, but also opened the door for the even more destructive practice of mountain top removal.

The Mountain Eagle’s involvement with the War on Poverty, along with their opposition to strip mining, also angered some people in Letcher County, and the Gish family was shunned by many of their neighbors, and the paper was boycotted by some advertisers. Efforts to undermine them were rampant and threats from coal operators were frequent. When a Molotov Cocktail was finally thrown through the window of the newspaper’s offices in 1974, many of the residents of Whitesburg turned their backs on the Gishes. They still managed to get the next edition out the week following the fire, although the paper was put together in the family’s living room, and the family moved their home to a rural part of the county, but kept the offices in Whitesburg because it was the county seat. For the next three years, the paper devoted a significant amount of space to the events surrounding the prosecution of the arsonists, but they still focused heavily on county news. The 1976 Scotia Mine disaster, when two methane explosions claimed the lives of 26 men at Oven Fork in Letcher County took their full attention for much of the entire following year.

The Mountain Eagle has survived into the 21st Century, and the Gishes and their paper won a number of national awards for excellence and courage in journalism, along with several major awards for their contribution to freedom of the press. Both Tom (2008) and Pat (2014) have since died and their son Ben is the Editor and the only member of the Gish family still working at the newspaper. Letcher County has experienced many of the same changes as the rest of the country, but the economy never expanded past coal mining, so when the coal industry collapsed in 2015, the rest of the county economy failed with it. Unemployment is high now and many of the younger families have left seeking employment elsewhere. Tom Gish’s prediction that eastern Kentucky could eventually find itself mostly with very young and very old recipients of government assistance living there has come true and the region is currently struggling to find a way to manage. The Mountain Eagle has suffered too, but it still manages, and it still adheres to the masthead slogan, “It Screams."

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

https://doi.org/10.13023/ETD.2017.352

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