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Tom Gish, Journalist And Newspaper Publisher, 82

Rain mixed with tears the November day they buried newspaperman Tom Gish in Letcher County, Ky. Boycotts, death threats, banishment and even a firebomb couldn't keep Gish from publishing The Mountain Eagle, the weekly paper in Whitesburg, Ky., which declares "It Screams" on its masthead.

But kidney failure silenced Gish at age 82, after 52 years of holding local, state and national politicians accountable with a tiny newspaper that had national impact.

Gish's shocking accounts of Appalachian poverty prompted a New York Times reporter to write a series about the issue, which was then credited with inspiring President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty."

Tough reporting and editorials exposed that grinding cycle of poverty, political corruption, ineffective government programs, unfair treatment of coal miners, and the scarred-earth practices of coal companies.

The firebombing in 1974 resulted from stories about police harassment of young people. A local policeman was convicted of the crime. The bombing didn't stop Gish or his presses. Immediately after the attack, The Mountain Eagle slogan became "It Still Screams."

Before Gish and his wife, Pat, bought the paper, it called itself "A Friendly, Non-Partisan Weekly Newspaper" and was considered pleasant, chatty and inoffensive. The Gishes transformed the weekly into a crusade, attracting the attention of politicians and journalists across the state and nation.

"We didn't know that one of every two mountain adults couldn't read or write," the Gishes explained in an article quoted by the Lexington Herald-Leader. "We didn't know that tens of thousands of families had been plunged into the extremes of poverty."

Tom Gish is remembered as somebody who embraced two key aspects of the journalistic mission: give voice to the voiceless; comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

"Too many people in rural journalism have courage but burn out. Or get caught in some economic circumstance that forces them to sell out or give up," notes Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. "[The Gishes] persevered. And they set an inspirational standard for everyone in community journalism and journalism as a whole."

Gish told CBS News reporter Charles Kuralt in 1969 that the threats, boycotts and firebombing would not drive him from his mission. "That would amount to a kind of surrendering that I just can't do," Gish declared.

The Mountain Eagle still screams, with son Ben Gish at the helm. At Tom Gish's funeral, according to longtime friend and colleague Tom Bethell, "the pastor preached the gospel of the prophet without honor in his own land ... Tom [Gish] would have approved."

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Howard Berkes
Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.