The ABC documentary A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains and its follow-up stirred much talk. But what action will ensue? That's the question the people of Central Appalachia, and their journalists, need to answer.
Many viewers had a familiar gripe, that the documentary showed only the region's bad side. Though it briefly referred to the 1960s, the show wasn't meant to be a progress report on Appalachia. It aimed to remind or reveal that "half a million people live in the kind of poverty we cannot imagine," as Diane Sawyer told the national audience of nearly 11 million.
She told the old story a new way, through the lives of children victimized by the failings of adults and struggling to overcome: A football star lives in a truck to escape his family's depravity, a pre-teen girl struggles with her mother's drug problems, and a girl says "butter and ranch" are sometimes all that's in her family refrigerator.
"Butter and ranch. That's as poetic as most hymns," said Dee Davis of the Center for Rural Strategies. Contrary to claims it was a rehash of old issues, the documentary revealed that a favorite soft drink has so much sugar, caffeine and acid that it's responsible for widespread tooth decay and has given its name to a regional disorder: "Mountain Dew Mouth."
When journalism illuminates problems that raise questions of public policy, it's obliged to offer possible solutions. That was the main flaw in the documentary, which was long on emotion and short on context. Viewers were also troubled by a report, later-recanted, of an incest allegation in the football player's family, which amplified perhaps the worst stereotype of Central Appalachia — one that, unlike most, isn't supported by research. ABC says the family volunteered the information.
The network followed up with reports on reaction and solutions. But its main follow-up of seven-and-a-half minutes on last Friday's 20/20 mostly retold the story and reported on the resulting charity — and the promises by Mountain Dew maker Pepsi to provide a second mobile unit and other help for the story's chief adult hero, dentist Edwin Smith of Barbourville.
Solutions were relegated to the last two minutes, a blur of ideas (infrastructure and job training, green jobs, computers for every student, expanded health care) with only two methods of turning them into reality: stimulus money and more philanthropy for rural areas, one of the means this writer suggested and the one that made it onto the air.
Despite the relative lack of attention to solutions, the reports focused fresh attention on the problems, and thus could help accomplish what Sawyer, a Kentucky native, suggested in her eloquent closing: "These Kentuckians say the beauty of the mountains is calling to all of us to restart that conversation that began more than 40 years ago," with the War on Poverty.
The nation, and the states involved, should continue to bear some responsibility for helping Appalachia, but the region's problems are also local problems. They are often not seen that way by some of the better-off in Appalachian communities, who dismiss the poverty, ignorance and depredation as unsolvable, the adults involved as incorrigible. But this was a story mainly about innocent victims, and the fighting spirit they show. They are inspirations, and a call to action.
Also inspiring were the final words, from University of Kentucky professor Ron Eller, the leading historian of modern Appalachia: "There are ways to think about the future in the mountains in different kinds of ways than we've thought about them in the past. We just need to be willing to dream."
Appalachian journalists should seek out those dreams and ideas. There is no shortage of them, from the visionary, like specialty agriculture such as finishing hogs on forest mast, to the more immediate, like better dental care. It's in short supply in Central Appalachia partly because Medicaid pays dentists so little. And how about re-establishing the Kentucky Appalachian Commission?