Eastern Kentuckians mixed on '20/20' report

When Eastern Kentuckians watched Diane Sawyer's 20/20 report about children and poverty in Appalachia on Friday, many felt as if they had seen the show before.

For some, legions of whom shared their ire on online discussion boards and by word of mouth, it was because the 20/20 special report seemed to touch on the worst stereotypes of mountain people as missing teeth, being mired in hopeless poverty and strung out on drugs.

For others, there was a sense of déjà vu because the ABC News program put a national spotlight on the harsh existence that festers when rampant drug addiction escalates the already substantial struggle of the poorest of the poor.

"It's hard not to look at that program and think about 50 years of reporting on Appalachia," said Art Menius, director of Appalshop, an arts and education center in Whitesburg that has produced more than 100 films about Appalachia. "The stories that get all of the attention are the ones that the producers think have the greatest reach in terms of pulling heartstrings, and it misses a whole lot of what's going on."

Hazard Mayor Bill Gorman was more blunt in his assessment of the report, titled A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains, in which he briefly appeared.

"The same load of crap they've been doing for 40 years," he said.

A steady succession of unflattering pop culture and news portrayals of mountain people have made Eastern Kentuckians sensitive to the way they are portrayed. But with Kentucky native Sawyer, born in Glasgow and raised in Louisville, anchoring the report, viewers said they were hoping for a more sympathetic portrayal.

"I was hoping for a fair and complex look at Appalachia," said author Silas House, who lives in Lily. "She did a beautiful job introducing it, stating she was a Kentuckian and that Americans had these stereotypes and she hoped they would dismiss those stereotypes and look at the complexity of the issues."

But House said he thought the program failed ultimately because of some of its content and that "it was trying to do too much."

Plenty of people saw Children of the Mountains. It was the top-rated prime-time program Friday, attracting 10.9 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. It was the biggest 20/20 audience since 2004.

The Herald-Leader contacted ABC News for comment, but Sawyer and the report's producers were not available.

Sawyer told The Associated Press before the report aired that she and her crew drove more than 14,000 miles in two years to make the documentary, which focused on the stories of Central Appalachian children struggling with poverty and other issues. "Very few people make their way up into the hills and the hollows and the shadows to look at these lives," Sawyer told the AP. "It's not easy to get there."

A difficult story to tell

It's also hard to tell the story of a life, much less a complicated life, in the space of a television show, said Jim Matney, a coach at Johnson Central High School in Paintsville, where Shawn Grim, one of the young people featured in the program, was a football standout.

Grim, of Flat Gap, was portrayed as a hard-working boy from a tough background trying to do better. As shown on 20/20, he ultimately got a scholarship to Pikeville College, but dropped out after eight weeks.

"I think that ABC didn't mean to offend anyone," Matney said. "They had a very difficult job of telling this story of a young man who worked hard to break free of a very bad and dysfunctional situation."

Matney is concerned, he said, that the show made it appear that Grim did not have the support of the community. Many people tried to help the young man, he said. Many doors were open but Grim, for a variety of reasons, wasn't always able to walk through them. Although he was shown living in his truck, Grim had families willing to take him in, said Matney, who has received hundreds of offers of help for Grim since the program aired.

But, he said, the report accurately represented the ravages of the toxic mix of poverty and drug addiction. "I think it is even worse than what was portrayed," he said. "We are fighting for our lives."

Grim, who is still without a job after dropping out of college, said in an interview Tuesday that he thought Children of the Mountains, which touched on his family's struggles, was fair, although difficult to watch.

"It's something a person wouldn't want to do every day. It's not like it's something I want to go through every day," he said.

As for the negative chatter on the Internet and around town, "I haven't been listening," he said.

Since the report aired, there has been an outpouring of support for three of the children featured, including Grim, and some of the services, including a mobile dental clinic run by Dr. Edwin Smith. (See related story above.)

Stereotypes or truth?

Tom Kenny, co-news anchor for WTVQ-36, Lexington's ABC affiliate, said, "I think for a lot of people in America who watched that show and maybe heard about the uneducated, toothless, Eastern Kentucky mountain person, what that story did instead of perpetuating a stereotype was it showed that some of the bad things are real. ...

"That's sounding an alarm to the rest of the country to let you know that it is more than just a rumor, more than a punch line for an inappropriate joke. It's reality for a lot of people."

One person who appeared in 20/20's report reacted differently.

"I feel very uncomfortable having to see toothless moms ignoring the kids and slipping into addiction," said Dee Davis, executive director of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg. "I don't want that to represent my place or my people.

"But," he said, Sawyer "didn't get them from central casting. She didn't get them in a lab, she didn't use a detective agency to find them.

"This is us, right?"

He understands how people can be upset with the show.

'We are very sensitive'

"For those of us here in the mountains, we are very sensitive to negative portrayals of stereotypes," Davis said. "Our awareness has been raised very high because of the way people have dismissed us."

But, he said, being angry isn't enough. People have to recognize the true depth of the problems facing the region and do something.

Others saw the show as perpetuating sensational stereotypes that they said gloss over the region's real problems.

"It seemed like Diane Sawyer said, 'You know the stereotypes, and just in case you don't, watch while I reinforce all of them for you,'" said Derek Mullins, chair of the executive board for Appalshop. "The camera doesn't lie, but it also doesn't tell the whole story."

One segment of the show that even some of the show's defenders were disappointed with was an accusation of incest in Grim's family. The accuser ultimately recanted, but the show dwelled on it for several minutes.

"That did so much damage to the program," said House, the author.

But the real issue, Mullins said, might be that people have been seeing the same picture too long.

Referring to President Lyndon B. Johnson's 1960s "War on Poverty," which was declared in Inez, Mullins said, "At this point, we've been addressing poverty for 40 years. If we aren't gaining any ground, isn't it time to revise our strategy?"

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader