Great Courage, Small Places
When people believe their work matters
WHITESBURG, Kentucky, 1974—They have to get the paper out this week, have to. Publishers Tom and Pat Gish see it as taking care of business. The office of their scrappy mining-town weekly, The Mountain Eagle, has just been drenched with kerosene and set on fire, punishment a local cop meted out for the sin of writing about police harassment. But that isn’t going to stop them from getting the paper out.
The Eagle’s motto—“It Screams!”—is a fitting battle cry for the tiny family-owned enterprise. Since the 1960s, The Eagle has stood up to corruption, bad cops and politicians and, most notably, strip miners whose bulldozers, in their search for coal, have plowed up family cemetery plots and sent caskets along with boulders and trees down hillsides into rivers and people’s homes.
The ruined Eagle office is just another obstacle. The Gishes are used to obstacles. That’s the nature of small-town news, Tom Gish says again and again. “It is hard to be loved and to advocate change in the community at the same time,” he tells a press association gathering many years later. “We all like to think our readers like for us to keep them informed, but often the response is more like, ‘Kill the messenger.’”
In the week in question in 1974, with the help of family and friends, Tom and Pat Gish publish the next edition from their living room. That week, the Eagle’s motto reads, “It Still Screams!”
Here in the home of the brave, storytellers tend to go so soppy over dramatic acts of fearlessness. Journalists venerate the heroes of their profession, their feats and sacrifices—Tom Paine doing jail time for unleashing revolutionary ideas, Elijah Lovejoy dying in the fight against slavery, William Allen White enduring endless ridicule for championing free expression.
Journalism enshrines their efforts with awards bearing their names. We cheer their moral strength from the sidelines, secretly praying for one sliver of their mettle, just a spark of the spirit that bore them into the pantheon.
In a strange way, this lets us off the hook, the notion that courage is a thing for kings, martyrs and news Olympians.
It gives us a great excuse for not trying—How could we possibly measure up? In truth, however, many of the greatest acts of journalistic courage come from the smallest places. A mining town. An Indian reservation. An urban neighborhood. More often than not, they are mounted by everyday folk, rooted in everyday events. Meeting a deadline. Asking a question. Taking care of business.
Call them simple everyday acts of conscience—but ones that, in retrospect, grow into greatness. They help us remember that courageous acts don’t require earthquakes, civil wars or killing fields. They show us that journalistic courage can surface anywhere people believe their work really matters.
In the early 1990s, work really matters—it means survival—for Bob and Nancy Maynard, owner-publishers of The Oakland Tribune. They are embarked on one of the ultimate newspaper fixer-upper jobs, rebuilding their daily into an instrument for community good. The challenge, one among dozens, comes in the form of an ad for handguns. It’s 1992. The murder rate in Oakland is rising. A local gun dealer advertises sports weapons in a number of the region’s papers but saves his handgun and assault-weapon ads for the Trib. Revenue from the gun ads means $100,000 a year, a small gold mine for the limping but plucky newspaper.
The Maynards ask the dealer to keep the sports weapons but drop the street weapons. The dealer cancels his ads altogether, just as the publishers feared he would. But “it was an integrity issue,” Nancy Maynard says eight years later. “We couldn’t advertise handguns and assault weapons and at the same time editorialize against them.”
For some, journalistic courage may mean putting truth ahead of comfort or even safety. For publishers, it usually means putting truth ahead of money—in this case, six months’ worth of ad money, which is what the Trib loses before the gun dealer agrees to resume advertising with the paper with just the sports guns.
“This was not a frivolous decision,” Maynard says. “During that time, when Tuesday at 3 a.m. of payroll week rolled around, you lay there and wondered how much cash was available. That was the level of intensity. We really needed every dollar we could get.
“It’s just that some dollars are too expensive.”
Sam Lacy, sports editor of the Baltimore Afro-American, finds the challenge in the form of an obvious—but in the 1930s, undebated—question: if ball players in the baseball Negro Leagues are as agile and strong and home-run hitting as the white players in the major leagues, why no black players in the majors?
A one-time Negro League pitcher himself, Lacy seeks answers as he sets out to “break down the barriers that stand between the dark-skinned diamonder of merit and a place on the payroll” of major league clubs. And in 1948, the man who has been covering the integration of baseball for a decade draws the assignment of a lifetime: to follow Jackie Robinson’s first year with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The sports editor rooms with the famous Dodger rookie in “colored” hotels. Throughout the south, Lacy faces his own set of obstacles. He is not allowed in stadium press boxes. In Florida, one ballpark won’t let him in at all. (Robinson sneaks him in through a loose floorboard.) Even so, the Afro tells the best story—the whole story—of Robinson’s barrier-breaking year.
Half a century later, at age 94, as he is being inducted into the sportswriting wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, New York, for his role in integrating baseball, Sam Lacy says this about the honor, about his life: “I’ve always felt that there was nothing special about me, that I was not the only person who could have done what I did. Any person with a little vision, a little curiosity, a little nerve could have done what I did.”
Hollywood loves wartime courage, the drama of, say, a New York Times reporter searching Cambodia for his lost colleague. And there’s grit and grist of legend, no doubt, in Morley Safer’s bringing us television of U.S. Marines torching the Vietnamese village of Cam Ne. Or in Fred Friendly’s quitting as CBS News chief because the network won’t air the congressional hearings on Vietnam. Or even in Walter Cronkite’s famous announcement that we were “mired” in the war, and “the only rational way out will be to negotiate.”
But what about all the others who stand up to the things that stand in their way? What about Ike Pappas? It’s 1963, and Pappas is standing right there, in fact—in the basement of a Dallas police station—when Jack Ruby shoots Lee Harvey Oswald. Pappas has just stuck his microphone into Oswald’s face, asking, “Do you have anything to say in your defense?” A second later, chaos. Ike’s act of courage? “To start talking, to report it.”
And what of Bill King? It’s 1989 and he’s a play-by-play man covering World Series game three, Oakland A’s and San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park. Then the Loma Prieta earthquake hits. The emergency broadcast system fails. Northern California is in a panic. But King is still on the air. His act of grace under pressure? He calmly reads the pages that are in all California phone books, the ones that tell exactly what everyone must do in case of a major earthquake.
Whatever the ingredient—instinct, integrity or “a little nerve”—Charlayne Hunter-Gault has it. One of two African-American journalism students entering the University of Georgia in 1961, she’s greeted by racists condemning her, vowing she will never graduate. She shows up, books in hand, week after week. Her 1963 graduation inspires others black students to follow her to journalism school. Hunter-Gault’s explanation: “With a passion bordering on obsession, I wanted to be a journalist.”
To make a difference. Added to everything else, it becomes more than enough. Enough to drive New York World columnist Heywood Broun from his comfortable perch to start the Newspaper Guild. Or to push Carl T. Rowan from the Minneapolis Tribune to travel south to expose Jim Crow laws. Or to make Ruben Salazar abandon the safety of the Los Angeles Times and head back to the streets with Latino community station KMEX-TV and, ultimately, to the anti-war demonstration where he is killed by police.
More often than not, great courage in small places means digging into the messy landscape of one’s own backyard—even if it means ending up without a home, or ending up at home in the company of enemies. Eagle publisher Tom Gish describes the challenge of the would-be courageous in the out-of-the-way place: “Small towns across America are dying. … Should the editor keep his mouth shut and his typewriter quiet? Or should he seek solutions, and through news stories, features and editorials try to awaken the town and get some movement under way?”
His words capture the lot of a handful of determined newspaper editors in the south—Hodding Carter Jr. in Greenville, Mississippi; Harry Ashmore in Little Rock, Arkansas; John Seigenthaler in Nashville, Tennessee; Ralph McGill in Atlanta—who in the 1950s and 1960s risk economic health and physical safety by talking about the need for civil rights on their own weevil-infested acreage. Or even of Afro sports editor Lacy, whose campaign to integrate baseball leads him to ask hard questions about the practices in his own home turf, Negro League baseball itself: bad management, teams in bed with racketeers, players jumping contracts. Was there, Lacy asks Afro readers, “something to the contention that we (black players) are keeping ourselves down?”
And certainly San Francisco Chronicle reporter Randy Shilts, who refuses to keep his mouth shut in the 1980s when he reveals the local prevalence of “baffling diseases hitting primarily gay men.” Shilts, one of the first openly homosexual reporters on a major metropolitan daily, knows that the problem—first called “gay-related immuno-deficiency diseases,” later known as AIDS—won’t go away soon. He breaks with gay community loyalty by reporting how bathhouses and homosexual lifestyle choices can spread the killer disease. His reporting leads to his being ostracized from the inner ranks of San Francisco’s large and powerful gay community, which brands Shilts as a traitor to his own kind. Villainized in the local gay press, Shilts continues reporting, gaining national prominence with his best-selling book on the epidemic, And The Band Played On. In 1994, Shilts dies of AIDS, after having kept his condition a secret for several years, explaining: “I didn’t want to end up being an activist. I wanted to keep on being a reporter.”
The social geometry here is fundamental: smaller people, by definition, face bigger obstacles. And so, in the end, a fitting epigraph to the great-courage, small-places pantheon might be: the less power you have, the more courage you need.
Ask that group of high school students in Dade County, Florida. In 1998, their school chief says administrators can review student publications before they go to press. There are but five of them, but the students organize rallies and mount a public campaign to protect the First Amendment rights of student journalists. The school board backs down. “We had come to appreciate journalism as [school] had taught it to us,” says student Isabel Eisner.
Ask Tim Giago, the one-man crusade against corrupt tribal governments who try to squash his plans for an independent Native American press. In a 1993 editorial in Indian Country Today, he notes: “For years a scandal sheet filled with filth about me made the rounds. … If that is the price one must pay in order to bring freedom of the press to Indian country, then that is the price I must pay.”
The less power you have, the more courage you need.
Ask publishers Dave and Cathy Mitchell, who in the 1970s buy The Point Reyes Light, circulation 1,700, in a bucolic oceanside town in Marin County, California. Starting out, Dave says, they are “not afraid of angering readers, only of boring them.” But small-town living means knowing your neighbors’ business, and the Mitchells’ neighbor just up the coast is a communal 3,000-acre alternative life-style center called Synanon, where members shave their heads, swap mates, train children in “punk squad” practices.
The Light chronicles the west Marin community’s concerns about Synanon, from zoning ordinance violations to the stockpiling of weapons. At one point, Synanon lawyers file lawsuits totaling $1.032 billion against the tiny weekly newspaper. In 1979, the Light wins a Pulitzer Prize for its Synanon investigation. The once-straightforward drug rehab center agrees to pay Dave and Cathy Mitchell $50,000 each as compensation for eight years of harassment through groundless lawsuits.
The Mitchells break up. Cathy goes on to teach. Dave moves to the big city on the tails of his David-and-Goliath triumph. At the San Francisco Examiner, he gets the chance of a reporting lifetime: covering the bloody events of the civil war in Guatemala. “But it went without a ripple,” Mitchell tells Editor & Publisher years later. “Nothing changed in Guatemala. My story did not affect anything. My God, in Point Reyes Station, if the postmaster is on the carpet for poor mail service, it’s a big story and something is done about it.”
Mitchell leaves the Examiner, returning to bucolic Point Reyes and his old newspaper.
“I have the enormous feeling,” he says, “that what I do on the Light matters.”
Eric Newton, news historian of The Freedom Forum’s Newseum, is editor of Crusaders, Scoundrels, Journalists.
Mary Ann Hogan was the primary writer for both the Newseum’s news history gallery and Crusaders, Scoundrels, Journalists.