Sawyer in Appalachia – ‘Children of the Mountain’ – One Viewer’s Reaction

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Diane Sawyer’s television special “Hidden America: Children of the Mountain” aired for the first time last night, covering the poverty level conditions existing in many areas of the Appalachian Mountains. People from many walks of Appalachian life were interviewed, and Sawyer discussed the many economic, health, and cultural problems that the region is troubled by. While the program also touched upon the rich and vibrant Appalachian culture, more attention was paid to the poor job market, prescription drug abuse, and tooth decay in the community, all seen through the lens of a selection of the region’s young people.

This isn’t the first time that journalists have visited Appalachia to expose the poverty of the region during an economic downturn. During the Great Depression, reporters and photographers visited the Appalachian Mountains, which was one of the first regions to be severely hit by the Great Depression. Some of the more striking photography of the era was taken during these visits. Unfortunately, many of the individuals and families who were interviewed and photographed did not fully understand that the purpose of the media attention was to expose their poverty. Later, many of these people felt that the reporters had exploited their situation and trust simply to garner a catchy news story and harbored deep resentment at the embarrassment. It remains to be seen whether Sawyers report will be accepted as a tasteful news story done in good faith or the beginning of a new era of media exploitation similar to that seen in the Great Depression.

Does doing a full story on the economic realities of the Appalachian Mountains do any service to the people living there, or does it merely play to the growing fears of America and the world at large of a possible return to a serious economic recession or depression? Given that Sawyer herself is from this region and sincere tone of the program, one hopes that the former is the case. If the latter is the real purpose of the program,  that is unfortunate. If FDR was correct in identifying the only thing that we have to fear, then fear mongering exploitive television does nothing more than add to the underlying problems. Pointing out that Appalachia is a low income era is like pointing out that New Yorkers are unfriendly or that people are more flaky on the west coast; these are all well established cultural generalizations that go without saying. Actually, a hard hitting expose on west coast flakes might make for pretty good television…


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