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News-Sentinel.com Your Town. Your Voice.

I dig Appalachia

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press
Wednesday, January 18, 2017 01:01 pm

Lots of political stuff I could talk about today, including the indefensible commutation of Chelsea Manning's sentence and the continued meltdown of the political left. But I think I'm going to go with "Not just ‘Trump’s America’: These journalists will spend 100 days digging into Appalachia." A lot of us from Appalachia have always been dismayed, and often a little angry, about the stereotypes that persist of the region and its people. As Kentucky journalist Silas House has lamented (he is quoted in the piece),  "Only the poorest folks got into the newspapers and magazines, perpetuating the stereotype that everyone in the Southern mountains was barefoot, malnourished, dirty-faced."

Well, a group of journalists from Appalachia are mad as hell and aren't going to take it anymore:

A new project by journalists in Appalachia aims to change the narrative about their region. "100 Days in Appalachia," launching later this week, will narrate the first 100 days of the Trump administration through the eyes of all sorts of people who live in Appalachia.

The project — a joint collaboration between West Virginia Public Broadcasting, The Daily Yonder, and WVU’s Reed College of Media — describes itself as telling "the political, economic and human stories of communities that are more complex than national narratives have allowed."

The project team — West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Dave Mistich and WVU Reed College of Media professors Dana Coester and Nancy Andrews — has set out clear guidelines for what the project is and isn’t.

It’s not a daily record newspaper, an aggregation site for regional media or a collection of personality profiles. Instead, they’re asking contributors to submit photos, words and multimedia that can respond to questions like, "Does it surprise the reader about Appalachia specifically and rural America in general in any way?" and "Does it challenge or shed new light on stereotypes embedded in identity politics?"

At least it's a bunch of journalists who are already in Appalachia, not a swarm of coastal correspondents who will act like they're fascinated by the colorful yet primitive natives of a foreign country. If anybody can show that the region is just as diverse in population and character as any other part of the country, it's people who already live there and, presumably appreciate it. I wish them well. 

But I fear they are doomed to fail.

Shortly after beginning my first newspaper job at the Wabash, Ind., Plain Dealer, I noticed that not only had a lot of people moved from Kentucky to live in Wabash, but many of them were from the Paintsville-Johnson County area of the Bluegrass state.

I wondered why this was so, and somehow convinced my editor it would be a good story — this was back in the day when even small newspapers had things called "budgets." So the newspaper footed the bill for me to spend almost a week in Paintsville, and I spent another week talking to the Kentucky natives in Wabash. The result was a multi-part series called "The Kentuckians" that explored the lives of a hill subculture in a small Indiana town and tried to describe the place they had come from.

It was award-winning stuff, and I was awfully proud of myself and the series. I was born and raised in Kentucky - just a couple of counties over from Paintsville - and felt that fact had enabled me to succeed where any other writer would have failed. Because I understood those folks - I was one of them myself - I was able to present a subtle and complex, fair and complete picture of them instead of the shallow, one-dimensional tripe journalist- sociologists usually turn out when they examine distinct categories of people. 

But then, as I was going through clips a few years later, I found the series and read it again. I was not exactly ashamed of it, but I was definitely embarrassed by it.

This time around, the Kentuckians did not seem like distinct, specific individuals who all just happened to have one thing in common. And my writing did not come across as an intimate portrait by a knowledgeable insider. The stories seemed pretentious and overbearing, and the subjects they treated seemed like bugs under a microscope. Paintsville came across not as a real place but as a cartoon town. The Johnson County people living in Wabash came across as mere props, their quotes dropped in to illustrate whatever point the writer wished to make.

It convinced me of one thing: There is no way on Earth to write about people as a group without making the people seem somehow less than human and without making the writer sound condescending and patronizing.

It doesn't matter how well it is done or how noble the intentions of the writer are. It doesn't matter who the group is — blacks or whites, men or women, Jews or Christians, former Kentuckians or expatriate Russians. It doesn't matter whether the writer is an uninformed "outsider" or one of the group in question.

 We live life one-on-one. The only truly important things in life are those that happen to individuals and between individuals. The more we move away from individual personal worth and toward group affiliation, the more time we waste on the superficial and meaningless aspects of life, and the less energy we have for things that matter.   

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