A nasty trick that violated the rights of many

The Mountain Eagle, Whitesburg, Ky., Nov. 15, 2006

Today is Wednesday, November 15, 2006. That's just a few days from Thanksgiving Day, and but six weeks away from that day in early January, 1957, when we — Tom and Pat Gish — became the folks who own and operate this newspaper. And it should be said that the paper will celebrate its 100th birthday in a few months, something of a rarity.

But we have a deep sense of unease and uncertainty approaching a sense of fear as we go about our routine tasks this week. An effort was made last week to put The Mountain Eagle out of business. Take the paper away from the people who read it each week and the paper will die a quick, short death. A newspaper cannot exist without readers.

There are no secrets about The Mountain Eagle's circulation. We print 7,000 copies of the Eagle each week. Some 3,000 copies are mailed to Letcher Countians and residents of neighboring counties who get the paper in their mailboxes on Wednesday, and some to Letcher Countians whose jobs have taken them to widely scattered places across America. Something over 4,000 copies go through the newsstands each week.

Last week was election week, and we went to press a couple of days early. We have been doing this in recent years because it earns additional advertising revenue and permits political candidates a last-minute chance to get their messages into thousands of homes.
Our papers were printed in Norton, Va., on Sunday, brought back to Whitesburg early Monday morning, and rapidly distributed to news racks and post offices throughout the county.

Almost immediately, the phones at the Eagle started ringing. Readers who had stopped at grocery stores, gas stations and other outlets wanting to buy Eagles were told that none were left for sale; somebody had bought them all!

As the day moved on, large numbers of readers came to the Eagle office to buy copies of the paper, but we had only a few left for sale. But we did hear countless descriptions of events from angry citizens who had been denied their God-given and American Constitution-guaranteed right to liberty and the freedom to read, to gain information, to think for themselves.

There is another right that also enters in. That issue of the Eagle contained a number of advertisements from automobile dealers, furniture stores, groceries and other merchants who wanted to reach the thousands of Letcher Countians who read the Eagle each week. That's how many of the cars, groceries, mattresses, sofas, lawn mowers, etc., are sold here. The right of those merchants to benefit from that advertising was stolen. And you, dear readers, might have missed a rare buy on a good car.

The community consensus, as we hear it, is that every copy of the Eagle that could be found was taken off newsstands to keep voters from reading information that refuted false statements circulated on radio, television and in other publications against Letcher County Judge/Executive Carroll Smith.

In the last Presidential election, one of the American heroes of the war in Vietnam was portrayed as a near-traitor in countless lying television ads by the Republicans who supported George Bush. These ads, called "swift-boating," defined a type of campaign by lie, by distortion, that has characterized numerous successful Republican campaign efforts across the nation. Reports are that voters nationally have grown sick of that type of advertising. It is quite likely that these sick ads by Republicans in recent House and Senatorial races are one of the primary reasons Democrats won control of Congress. However, the nasty smear type ads seem to have worked here.

It appears that in the recent Letcher County election, Judge Carroll Smith was swift-boated. His many accomplishments were turned into misdeeds. Lie was piled upon lie, lie after lie, after lie.

It took a bit of doing, but Blackey citizen-activist Nina Cornett used the Kentucky Open Records Act to obtain the truth about one much repeated lie. The charge was that Smith had cost Letcher County millions of dollars in state and federal funds by not attending more meetings of the Kentucky River Area Development District board of directors. And what lies they were!

The truth, spelled out in the disappeared election-eve newspapers, was that Letcher was not last in funding among KRADD counties. The total opposite was true. It was No. 1 among all the counties, definitely not last. KRADD Executive Director Paul Hall belatedly acknowledged that in the past four years Letcher County had requested funding through KRADD of $24.1 million. That's $13.4 million more than neighboring Knott County and $20.8 million more than another neighbor, Perry County. Clearly, Letcher County under Judge Smith was the leader in seeking state and federal assistance for water and sewer and other eligible programs. What enormous lies were told to mislead Letcher County voters.

We do not know who arranged the disappearance of thousands of Mountain Eagles before anyone had a chance to see them. We do know that a Cromona, Kentucky publication has reported the Democrats did it. We do not make that charge, but we would be curious to hear what the Democrat Party leadership has to say.

The Eagle has received an unprecedented outpouring of support in recent days, and we are deeply grateful. We in no way blame the people of the county for what has happened. If the truth ever becomes known, we think it will all trace back to a handful of very powerful interests who want to control every single thing in the county, no disagreements, no opposition, no hints of dissent to be tolerated — the old way of doing things — fire the coal miner who wants a union, don't re-hire the teacher who disagrees, take away the food stamps, the free medications, the welfare checks of anyone who dares express a thought of his own.

Shoot and kill the famed Canadian television producer who shows a casual interest in Letcher County problems, burn down The Mountain Eagle, make The Mountain Eagle disappear from the newsstands.

It is all part of the same — a determined effort to hold the people of the county uninformed about things we all need to know as we struggle to build a better community.

On a more personal note, we at the Eagle struggled with ourselves after arsonists burned down the Eagle in 1974. We are troubled now by the effort to take the paper from the hands of its readers. But we are determined to continue doing what we do: Give you readers the facts on the things that happen in the county and sometimes elsewhere. We don't have the time, the reporting staff, to report it all, but we do what we do with good intentions, determination, and a lot of love for the mountains and mountain people.

And, yes, let's hope no one person, no organization, can keep you from this week's paper and another 100 years of The Mountain Eagle.

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues helps non-metropolitan media define the public agenda in their communities, through strong reporting and commentary on local issues and on broader issues that have local impact. Its initial focus area is Central Appalachia, but as an arm of the University of Kentucky it has a statewide mission, and it has national scope. It has academic collaborators at Appalachian State University, East Tennessee State University, Eastern Kentucky University, Georgia College and State University, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Marshall University, Middle Tennessee State University, Ohio University, Southeast Missouri State University, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, Washington and Lee University, West Virginia University and the Knight Community Journalism Fellows Program at the University of Alabama. It is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the University of Kentucky, with additional financial support from the Ford Foundation. To get notices of Rural Blog postings and other Institute news, click here.

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Last revised Nov. 15, 2006