I promised myself I would keep an open mind. I sat down Saturday morning and watched Hidden America: Children of the Mountains in the privacy of my office. No distractions, no interruptions. Several hours later I watched it again to see if my initial thoughts remained the same. Each time I was overcome with emotion. My feelings have ranged from sadness and compassion, to embarrassment and anger. To be honest, “Hidden America: Children of the Mountains” made me mad as hell! But read on, you may be surprised as to why I am so angry.

I must admit I watched Diane Sawyer’s “Hidden America: Children of the Mountains” with a great deal of trepidation.  Let’s face it; we’ve been down this road before.  I remember Muddy Gut Hollow and WYMT’s live town hall meeting to respond following the hour long assault on our region.  I remember the excitement when the Harlan Boys Choir was selected to sing at President Bush’s Inauguration only to be followed by the anger and resentment as the national media once again depicted our region as a “hell” hole.  So yes, I was concerned the same stereotypical images would once again grace our nation’s airwaves, reinforcing the misconceptions and half-truths associated with one of the most beautiful places on earth, the place I am proud to call home.

Yet, I promised myself I would keep an open mind.  I sat down Saturday morning and watched it in the privacy of my office.  No distractions, no interruptions.  Several hours later I watched it again to see if my initial thoughts remained the same.  Each time I was overcome with emotion.  My feelings have ranged from sadness and compassion, to embarrassment and anger.  To be honest, “Hidden America: Children of the Mountains” made me mad as hell!  But that anger is not directed so much at Diane Sawyer and ABC, but instead at me, my friends and my associates.  What are we doing to help?

I will agree the national media tends to have an agenda which perpetuates the stereotypical views of our region.  They look for the images, the people and the stories which only serve to enhance those beliefs outside our region.  Yes, I wish ABC would have balanced the segment and focused on some of our successes.  I’d like the rest of America to enjoy the beauty of this region, the culture, the friendliness and the people.  But if we are honest, we must admit the facts of the documentary are true and sometimes the truth hurts.  It’s no secret; Eastern Kentucky has a drug epidemic.  Our region’s rates for cancer, diabetes, obesity and dental problems are higher than the national averages:  Facts WYMT and every other local news outlet has reported.  Are we really mad at Diane Sawyer for reporting on a serious problem, or are we upset that someone is reminding us of images we would rather ignore?  Remember, our mandate as journalists is to “give voice to the voiceless,” or as newsman Harry Golden once described his job: “To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”  The images we saw the other night should make us all uncomfortable.

I’ve read a number of comments on Facebook, ABC and various message boards.  I am appalled at the lack of sensitivity and humanity from some people within our own region.  Some have taken personal shots at Diane Sawyer.   I’ve never been a big fan of Bruce Springsteen, but one of my friends shared this quote, “Dude, stop!  You’re justifying the stereotype.”  This time, the Boss may be right.

Many want to blame the impoverished for their plight.  The common theme is, “we all have the same opportunities”, “they choose to live like this”, “it’s their own stupidity”, “they don’t have any pride”, “they should pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make something of themselves”, and I could go on and on.  Yes, in some instances, it is a choice and some people know how to milk the system.  But no caring person can blame an innocent child.   And for those trying to “break the cycle”, it is a battle many of us can not begin to comprehend.  

The first few years of my life were very similar.  I was too young to remember most of it, but my mother and brother remember it vividly.  My mother went days without food, making sure my brother and I had enough to eat.  When she finally found a job, she was always one paycheck away from being homeless with nowhere to go.  She had very little help from family.  And that’s not all that uncommon.  I’ve spoken with several people who work on the front-lines in the “war on poverty”.   They talk about the biggest and most misunderstood barrier is the “lack of a support system”.  In many instances, when someone tries to “break the cycle”, their own families pull against them; lay guilt trips on them or literally sabotage their efforts to succeed.  Can you imagine how hard it is to break free, when that’s all you’ve ever known?   A friend of mine that I respect dearly and who has worked with the underprivileged summed it up this way, “The Shawn Grim’s and Erica’s of the world need a person or family that will look out for them until they understand how life works.  They need money to buy the things most of us take for granted, they need life experiences that will help them write that English paper or speech.  They need encouragement from someone they respect, a mentor to help them understand their strengths and weaknesses and to help them set goals”.  

As journalists we want to spark conversation, debate and action.  Whether you agree with Diane Sawyer’s approach or not, she is making us take a long hard look in the mirror.  One of my favorite songs is Brandon Heath’s, “Give Me Your Eyes”.  

All those people going somewhere,
Why have I never cared?
Give me your eyes for just one second
Give me your eyes so I can see
Everything that I keep missing
Give me your love for humanity
Give me your arms for the broken hearted
Ones that are far beyond my reach.
Give me your heart for the ones forgotten
Give me your eyes so I can see

Maybe that’s where we should start, maybe we should ask ourselves, “What have I done to help correct this problem?”  “Have I volunteered at a drug rehabilitation center, homeless shelter or literacy center?”  “Have I provided a child with food or clothes?”  “Have I invited someone to church?”  I guess I’m realizing it is easy to complain and difficult to act.  Years ago I had the pleasure of traveling to Costa Rica on a mission trip.  I’ve also participated in summer mission trips across this country and in my hometown of Harlan.  But, what have I done lately?  I’ll ask you the same question.  What have you done lately?  And why do we always get so excited about foreign missions when we can find the same needs, many times even greater needs, less than five miles from our own doorstep.  I’m reminded of the verse, Matthew 25:44-45, “then they themselves will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’  “Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’

That is where the answer lies, not in more government programs and handouts, but with you and me.  Diane Sawyer described the people of our region as “brave and tough, filled with courage and hope.”  Those are words of truth. The question now is, “What are we going to do?”  Will I be the next mentor?  Will you?  Together we CAN change things, one life at a time.

There are dozens of wonderful agencies across our region that need volunteers and donations.  If you want to help and can’t find an organization in your community, drop me a line or call the station and I’ll be glad to point you in the right direction.

 I welcome your thoughts, comments and suggestions.

As always, thanks for making WYMT-TV your source for news and information.  We appreciate your trust.

God Bless America!

Neil Middleton
WYMT Mountain News
Appreciate Freedom – Thank a Vet!

The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved.
-Mother Teresa
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Comments are posted from viewers like you and do not always reflect the views of this station.
  • by Salima Location: California on Dec 18, 2010 at 10:47 PM
    I just came across your commentary on Diane Sawyers' report on the Mountain Children...I never saw it when it was shown....This response by you, Mr.Middleton, is one of the most stunning, heart-wrenching pieces of writing on a region in the u.s I know little about save for the stereotypical impressions that have permeated the American consciousness for decades....This is December, 2010, and I recently saw the film "Winter's Bone"...What did you think of this film? I can't possibly add to the courageous beauty and power of your words and quotations. Bravo!!! Poverty and the lack of opportunity breeds hopelessness and despair...as the wealthiest nation in the world, priorities have been skewed...pick a topic...wars, outsourced jobs, globalization, sub-prime mortgages, education, health care, Wall Street....we are a nation in trouble...we need to use our resources for the American people or we will continue in this downward spiral. Our children are our future.
  • by Jo Neace Krause Location: Nunnelly, Tennessee on Sep 15, 2010 at 07:30 PM
    I was born in Breathitt Co,Ky. Have my paintings in Kentucky Folk Art Center. No one has helped me like my own people. WE need to feel the love of one another because we are wonderful, all of us!
  • by poor man on Jun 6, 2010 at 07:51 PM
    diane is rite about most people hear ,but dont speak for those know how she is to get a store,,,poor ol ky she said her poor ol u know
  • by Cathryn Location: Illinois on May 23, 2010 at 05:12 PM
    I am a long desendent of kin folk in Appalachian Mountains and Why do people try to judge them and change them did anyone in the studies ever think to ask if they wanted change? I would trust a mountain women remidies any day.I still have kin that live there and can tell you they are not unhappy. Sure some of the younger ones are going hungrey that because they do not want to get out and hunt as their anstors did
  • by nallely Location: Florida on Jan 22, 2010 at 07:31 PM
    where can i find this whole video to watch it?
  • by Renee Location: Stanville, KY on May 9, 2009 at 01:19 PM
    Totally agree. Every show they (outside the area) do on the Appalachia seems to be the same. Wish someone would cover the good parts.
  • by micha Location: norfolk on May 8, 2009 at 09:08 AM
    Well its not a comment if i would say but ive been searching alot trying to find info on Diane Sawyers childhood so i was wondering if she could email me please.
  • by clyde Location: milton, florida on May 6, 2009 at 03:58 PM
    Diane sawyer is awful. not a very good samaritan who is supposedly such a huge christian. Like the priest and levite who just saw and walked on. Have any good samaritans appeared>>>??/ I am praying.
  • by julianne Location: milton, florida on May 6, 2009 at 03:55 PM
    So has anyone got those folks some vocational training or help at all???
  • by Arlene Location: North Liberty Ia on Apr 5, 2009 at 10:01 AM
    It tugged at my husband and my heart to see the saddness of the children. We decided to help in our own little way. We have started collecting clothes, food, toys, personal items. I've been in contact with Pastor Harris at the Homecoming church and we will be bringing down a Ryder truck full of things for the people. the people in our community (midwest) Iowa are so excited about donating that I already have boxes of stuff in just over a week since we started our project. We know it's beautiful down there and the poverty problem is something that we would like to help out with in our own small way.


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