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Does Diane Sawyer Get Appalachia?

Does Diane Sawyer Get Appalachia?

Yesterday, ABC News announced that it won The Peabody Award for Diane Sawyer’s report “A Hidden Camera: Children of the Mountains.” Maybe you saw it. It aired in February as a 20/20 special and followed the lives of four Kentucky children over two years.

It drew the largest 20/20 viewership since 2004, but reviews from Appalachia were mixed. A few went like this…

“I moved out of the region when I graduated High School to look for work as did many of my classmates. My family is still there. I see the drug abuse, the poverty, but mostly I see the children alone…If this documentary gets the attention of people willing to help and not criticize, Diane you have done an amazing thing.”

But most were more like this…

“Eastern Kentucky has it's problems…With that said, we are not all uneducated, tooth-decayed druggies.”

And this…

“I am from southern West Virginia. The people you have featured in this special are very extreme examples of people from Appalachia. People from this area are going through the same things that people in California and New York are facing.”

And this…

“Y’all come back now, ya hear! Why don't you plan a trip to meet some of us with Master's Degrees, Professional Degrees, or advanced certifications. There are plenty of us here who are health conscious, self-sufficicient, non-welfare drawing, non-Mountain Dew guzzling, non-addicted, intelligent, educated, and still have our natural teeth who would be willing to speak with you and show you the REST OF APPALACHIA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

There’s no denying it; the feature was skewed. It covered Appalachian poverty, not Appalachian culture. The middle class, music, literature, farming, tourism, industry—all of that was omitted.

In this blog, I go for the full breadth of Appalachia, and I do it two reason. First, I believe that it all contributes to the mystique and dynamism of our region. Second, in this medium, I can feature bite-sized chunks, a topic at a time, twice a week.

That said, I don't hold the same expectation for Diane Sawyer. She was graced with an hour block of primetime television. (Such a gift!) If she had tried to fold all of Appalachia into it, the show would have looked like a disjointed infomercial…

“Hear a banjo! Eat some cornbread! See the view! Aww, sad, some poor people. Don’t forget your camera!”

Instead she leveraged TV’s greatest asset --the ability to create an emotional connection. She let millions of Americans feel the desperation of living without food, the instability of having a drug addicted mother, and the struggle to achieve security when economic distress is all that you’ve known.

Other people have done this before Diane. David Sutherland’s “Country Boys” comes to mind (For the sake of disclosure, I worked on that documentary.) But who else could attract 10.9 million viewers and help them actually care about Appalachian poverty?