Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Amid anger in Appalachia, some see lessons in 20/20 documentary; ABC working on follow-up

As reactions to Diane Sawyer's documentary on Central Appalachian children continue, many seem to feel the show enhanced stereotypes and brought no fresh perspective or possible solutions to problems facing the region. "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," report 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," Art Menius, director of Appalshop, an arts and education center in Whitesburg, said. "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." Particularly troublesome, even for some of the documentary's defenders, was the mention of an incest allegation in one of the families featured.

Dee Davis, executive director of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg and a former Appalshop filmmaker, had a somewhat different reaction. He said he was disturbed by the incest segment and the stereotypical representation of Appalachians, but 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." (Read more)

While understanding how people can be angry at the documentary's portrayals, Davis insisted that people have to move beyond their anger and focus on the depth of the problems facing the region. He told The Rural Blog, "We don’t say to ourselves, how in the hell have we let this happen? How have we sat here and tolerated this situation and let it get this way? … Why aren’t we doing a better job looking after each other, and I am responsible as anybody."

Other critics said the show was long on emotion and short on cause and possible solutions. Producer Claire Weinraub told The Rural Blog earlier this week that ABC was interested in pursuing those angles as follow-ups, and in fact her associates are conducting interviews in Kentucky this week for a "20/20" segment planned to air Friday night.

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