For generations, journalists have beaten a path into Eastern Kentucky to interview — and sometimes irritate — mountain folks.
John Fetterman (1920-1975) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Courier-Journal in Louisville. His 1967 book, Stinking Creek: The Portrait of a Small Mountain Community, critiqued the War on Poverty from the vantage point of Knox County. It also poked fun at reporters in search of "real poverty stuff."
Here is an excerpt from Fetterman's book:
Along Highway 80, which slashes through the saddened hills from Hyden to Hazard, the newsmen flock. Their purpose: "I'm here to get some poverty stuff, Mac." And the brakes of their cars squeal day after day at the same "picturesque" spots where shabby little cabins perch and grubby children play.
"Jesus Christ, stop and let me get a coupla shots of that."
"Boy! That's real poverty stuff there."
And on the highway from Jenkins to Whitesburg and from Whitesburg to Harlan, the small motels now serve a cosmopolitan clientele. The taciturn motel manager watches you unload a typewriter and a pair of cameras, sees you are alone, and says disparagingly, "Had a whole NBC crew here last week."
Many newsmen prowl the mountains of East Kentucky to "get some poverty stuff." Poverty is "hot." It is a subject rarely rejected by editors, and poverty stories and pictures are highly salable, as every free-lancer has learned. And easy to obtain. Naïve, curious and trusting, gaunt mountain men and women pour out tales of suffering, hunger and privation. Some are true; others only whining recitations offered in the hope that somehow it may increase the monthly welfare check.
Other mountain folk stubbornly insist, "We're making out jest fine." These are the disappearing remnants of a people whose pride and independence are eroding and decaying, just as the hills about them are eroding and decaying, silting and poisoning their streams and destroying their sparse tillable bottom land.
The more one sees of East Kentucky, the more baffling are its people and its desolation.
John Cheves: (859) 231-3266. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.