To Whomever It Might Concern: This Is What I Think About That

An anonymous readers'-comments page in an Appalachian paper gives citizens from Neon to Stinking Creek a safe place to air their views

THE citizens of this skinny town, wedged in the flat hollow between the steep mountain walls of Appalachian coal country, were always reluctant to express themselves in letters to the local newspaper.

"It marked you for life," explains Pat Gish, wife of publisher and editor Thomas Gish of the Mountain Eagle, an 86-year-old weekly newspaper published from a strip mall dominated by a Family Dollar discount store.

In a region where family networks are vast, the big mining companies do most of the hiring, and politics is personal, letters to the editor could bring retribution, says Ben Gish - managing editor and son - even if not until a decade later.

But 10 years ago, the Eagle began "Speak Your Piece," an anonymous forum where readers call in and record their messages. The floodgates of opinion burst. In the first issue, reader comments consumed seven full broadsheet pages.

The outpouring has leveled off to a mere one to several pages since then, but the 27,000 people of Letcher County, Kentucky, which runs from Neon to Stinking Creek, have found a robust forum for their views - public and private, generous and mean, practical and petty.

This is low-tech participatory journalism that leaves Larry King call-in shows in the dust. It offers a public window into hearts and minds that few communities could match.

Local political commentary raises some unusual character questions:

To the person who commented about a candidate campaigning at a chicken fight: If you are so good and perfect what in the world were you doing at a chicken fight?

Terry Adams, are you going to leave and go to Florida if you get elected as jailer like you did when you were elected county surveyor?

But the character questions cut both ways:

This is a candidate who lost the election, and I know I was supposed to get more votes than I got. The people in this county told me every time I asked them that they were going to vote for me, and I asked a thousand people. I only got two votes, so 998 lied to me.

Politics are also extremely practical:

Mr. Seals: Me and eight members of my family will vote for you for mayor of Neon only if between now and then the parking lot and the alley around your building in Neon is cleaned up of all the garbage.

Homer Rose Jr.: Election time is coming up again, but evidently you must not be wanting anyone to vote for you. You sure aren't fixing any graveyard roads.

On jobs and the economy, people say things in the newspaper now that they still fear would lose them work if they had to sign their names, according to Mrs. Gish.

DLX: The price of your coal didn't get cut, so don't you think it's time to furnish health and life insurance and give the hard-working men a raise? Not the bosses. They make big bucks.

Isn't it pitiful that a coal company like South East will work their men for nothing? It has been three solid weeks that they've worked and never gotten a pay day. How much more do they think the men can stand?

But not all the blame goes up the pay scale. Folks get you-know-who-you-are prods in the work and money department:

I know a man who works every day and makes over $250 a week, but he doesn't buy any food and doesn't have any food in the house right now. He has a wife and two kids and I think he ought to get some food in the house.

Some of you women in Letcher County amaze me. I wouldn't have a man if I had to support him. ... When are you going to wake up and smell the coffee, girls? Men are supposed to support us, not us support them.

The messages reflect most of the frustration and support of neighbors:

I'm calling in about my neighbors. They tell me they're into recycling. Since when is recycling throwing your garbage in the creek when the creek's up?

To all the people who came out to help their neighbors at Eolia, especially on Smith's Creek, during the blizzard: God bless you all.

But it includes the kindness of strangers when it matters most:

A couple of weeks ago we lost our mother and we were staying at the Parkway Motel. We were all very broken hearted. While we were there, two waitresses working in the restaurant there were so cheerful and so sweet they just brightened our day. Their names were Judy and Kathy. They always had a smile on their faces and something kind to say to everyone. It would be a lot better world if everyone had people like those two. Girls, we love you. Thanks a lot.

At the center of life here, as elsewhere, are affairs of the heart. Other comments, of course, are directly specifically at the newspaper.

Managing editor Ben Gish transcribes the tapes himself. He edits out comments that risk libeling someone, but leaves in some strong accusations.

Having owned the Mountain Eagle since 1957, notes Mrs. Gish, the family has a pretty keen feel for what is true and what isn't.

Much of Speak Your Piece is stuff of no great public value. But then, says Ben Gish, "anything that gets fourth grade girls to read" is worth something.

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