2009-08-19 / Opinions

A newspaperman steps down

Forty years ago a young reporter named David Hawpe was assigned to the Hazard bureau of the Louisville Courier-Journal. He was just four years out of college (UK) and new to the C-J after stints with the Associated Press and a Florida daily. But he was by no means new to eastern Kentucky. A native of Pike County, he had an Appalachian bred perspective: respectful of people, suspicious of powerful interests — an outlook that would serve him well.

But he could not have anticipated the news story that would do so much to shape his career. On December 30, 1970, a massive explosion killed 38 miners in a small Leslie County mine run by two brothers with little regard for the law. They had been using illegal explosives underground, and the open flame from an ignition touched off the highly flammable coal dust that they had illegally allowed to accumulate. In an instant, everyone working underground was dead — except for one lucky miner who had been on his way out of the mine and was literally shot from its mouth by the tremendous force of the blast.

Hawpe made his way to Hyden, through a snowstorm, and was on the scene when the victims' bodies were brought to the high school and laid out on the floor of the gymnasium under makeshift shrouds. He watched as the victims' wives were brought in to identify the burned and mangled remains of their husbands and listened as the women cried out in horror. He would never forget that.

In the days that followed, Hawpe unearthed the facts behind the tragedy and reported them in chilling detail. The Hurricane Creek disaster occurred exactly one year after Congress had enacted what was supposed to be the toughest mine-safety law in the world. The

Courier-Journal's Washington bureau chief, Ward Sinclair, broke the other half of the story, revealing how the Nixon administration had accommodated the coal industry by deliberately failing to enforce the new law. Between them, Hawpe and Sinclair produced a textbook case of investigative journalism so thorough and powerful that it could not be ignored. And that kind of reporting, as anyone in the business knows, is rare.

David Hawpe went on to a long and distinguished career at the

Courier-Journal, rising to become the paper's managing editor, then its editor and, since 1996, its editorial director and a twice-weekly columnist. In the face of changing times and the shifting priorities of the newspaper's owners, he fought to keep the C-J a true statewide paper, as committed to co vering news in the moun tains as in L ouisville and Frankfort. Ultimately it was a losing battle. The Hazard bureau, along with others out in the state, is long gone, and C-J readers mostly look in vain for news from these parts. Hawpe's commitment to the paper's long and honorable tradition of statewide coverage was not shared by the new breed of management bottomliners who felt no compulsion to spend funds covering the news in places they didn't even want to visit.

But if Hawpe suffered setbacks, he was never silenced. He loved politics and politicians, but if they didn't measure up to his standards he went after them with the newsprint equivalent of a pitchfork. And his beloved Commonwealth supplied him with endless material, thanks to the hacks and frauds who have flourished like kudzu in the state's humid political climate.

In his columns Hawpe was a happy warrior, relishing his confrontations with the mighty and foolish. He went into battle armed with a dry wit and the ability to laugh at just about anything, including himself. But he was serious about topics like improving Kentucky's schools. And he was never more serious than when opposing what he saw as the shameful devastation wrought by the coal industry - whether to miners brought low by black lung or mountains brought low by strip-mining. It was an outlaw industry, in his view. The scene in the Hyden gymnasium was never far from his mind, and he didn't give a damn who disagreed with him.

Lots of people, as it turns out, disagreed with Hawpe, often violently. Many of the recent online comments on his columns appear to have been posted by people with homicidal inclinations. And when Hawpe's retirement was announced on July 28, in a C-J piece by his longtime colleague Ralph Dunlop, there was widespread rejoicing. "Good riddance to a liberal nutbasket blowhard" was among the friendlier sentiments we saw posted on the paper's website.

We're not rejoicing. We wish Hawpe much happiness in his retirement, and we hope he'll come visit us and maybe even write something for us from time to time. But we see his departure in a dark light. As everyone knows, the daily newspaper industry is in deep trouble nationwide. The industry can't afford to lose anyone who lives and breathes hard-nosed newspapering — because such people are an endangered species, increasingly rare and irreplaceable. You won't find them anchoring the TV news and you can't count on finding them in the blogosphere.

And we won't find another David Hawpe.

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