Ezzells of The Canadian (Tex.) Record win 2007 Gish Award for rural journalism

The Ezzell family of The Canadian Record, a weekly newspaper in Canadian, Texas, are this year’s winners of the Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism. Pictured at left are the editor, Laurie Brown Ezzell, and her mother, Nancy Ezzell. Pictured below are Tom and Pat Gish, owners of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky.

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues established the award to honor the couple who this winter celebrated their 50th anniversary of publishing the Eagle. The Gishes were the first recipients of the award. Their son, Eagle Editor Ben Gish, was among the judges who unanimously voted to give the award to the Ezzell family.

“The Ezzells clearly demonstrate the tenacity, courage and integrity I've been privileged to witness in growing up around and working with my parents,” Gish said. Other judges agreed.

Author and former Los Angeles Times Washington correspondent Rudy Abramson, chairman of the Institute’s advisory board and a longtime friend of the Gishes, said “One cannot but notice a number of similarities between the Ezzell family and the Gish family, not the least of which is the continuity their newspaper represents in their community.”

Retired publisher Al Smith, an Institute founder and its steering-committee chair, said: “The story of this gutsy Texas family is as comparable to the Gishes of Kentucky as anyone could imagine.” The Canadian Record has held local, state and national politicians accountable, fought political extremism, opposed unwise military adventures and helped protect the environment, often against organized and violent opposition. All are “great examples of courage, tenacity and integrity,” Smith said.

Nan Ezzell and Laurie Ezzell Brown received the award Friday, April 20, at a dinner for which the guest speaker will be John Seigenthaler Sr., founder of the First Amendment Center. The dinner was part of the National Summit on Journalism in Rural America. Carl West, editor of The State Journal in Frankfort, Ky., attended and wrote a column about the Gishes and the Ezzells. Here's an excerpt::

"The Gishes are practically legends in Eastern Kentucky where their Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg took on the powers that be on hot-button issues such as strip mining, government secrecy and corrupt politicians in the face of death threats and arson, to mention a couple. No one’s surprised there’s a national award in light of they’ve done with the Mountain Eagle ("It Screams") and survived doing it.

" The Canadian Record stands tall in the Gishes’ shadow. . . . Ben, a co-publisher with his wife, died in 1993. He made his mark for fearlessness and character early. A mayoral candidate, upset with an Ezzell editorial, beat him up. Ezzell was hospitalized with a concussion, among other injuries. The publisher took it all with humor, though, contending at the time the aspiring but hot-headed politician was trying to express "a legitimate editorial opinion the best way he knew how" with his fists.

"The test of integrity stemmed from news The Canadian was fixing to run of a dispute between the school board and a banker to whom Ezzell was indebted and who tried to kill the story. Ezzell faced a crossroad: "Either I would run the paper or the bank would," Ezzell wrote long after the incident. "… I owed money to the bank ... but not my soul." Ezzell published the story. The banker later joined him in an effort to salvage the town’s economy after a major employer left." (Read more)

Texas editor: ‘Courage comes in many flavors’

In her remarks at the Gish Award Dinner, Laurie Ezzell Brown spoke of her father's courage and that of other people in Canadian and Hemphill County, Texas, including an Air Force reservist and friend who was called back to active duty in Iraq last month.

"We communicate via e-mail on occasion," she said. "A former Canadian school trustee, David expressed great relief in a recent e-mail that he was no longer on the board — as he has frequently, since retiring from that office last year. At issue this week is a $3 million indoor athletic facility, part of a $5 million capital improvement project using voter-approved bonds. Trouble is, the voters didn’t know, nor were they told, that well over half of that would go toward an athletic facility.

"Following a detailed report of the project in last week’s Record, and an editorial critical of it, board members were inundated with calls opposing such extravagance. Many of those callers attended Tuesday’s board meeting to speak and to stand witness. Their protests were effective. The facility was voted down by a somewhat reluctant 6-1 majority. But the irony of my friend David’s relief at being in the volatile Iraq war zone working as a flight navigator, rather than sitting through another heated school board debate, was not lost on me. Courage comes in all flavors.

"Many of the citizens who called their board members, and who also called me, had much to fear. Their children are their greatest point of vulnerability, and where are children more defenseless than in our public schools, where angry administrators or teachers, or worse—coaches—can exact their retribution. In doing so, they demonstrated courage—and gave their children a priceless lesson."

Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues
School of Journalism and Telecommunications, College of Communications & Information Studies
122 Grehan Building, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY 40506-0042
Phone 859-257-3744 - Fax 859-323-3168

Al Cross, director al.cross@uky.edu