“Children of the Mountains”: A worthy report from Diane Sawyer and “20/20”


Diane Sawyer deserves kudos for Friday’s “20/20” special “Children of the Mountains,” examining the life of kids who live among the poorest of the poor in central Appalachia.

It was a little showboat-y here and there for Sawyer, a Kentucky native, in some moments with her poverty-stricken subjects. But on balance “Mountains” was well reported, over a two-year period, and thoroughly heartbreaking. It reminds us that tolerating such abject poverty in the richest nation in the world is unconscionable.

ABC deserves credit for giving a big promo push to the special, which helped it deliver an impressive number by the standards of Friday nights and non-tabloid-y newsmag segs. The children of Appalachia may not be as sensational as a certain set of octuplets, but they are, IMHO, a whole lot more deserving of media attention.

At 10 p.m., “20/20” brought in 10.9 million viewers and 3.4 rating/11 share in adults 18-49, giving ABC a rare victory over CBS’ “Numbers” in the hour and giving “20/20” its biggest Friday night aud in four and a half years.

A number of specifics cited in the special stood out. A 36-year-old woman with eight grandchildren. A church raising $1.85 at its Sunday offering. A 30-year-old mother (Angel, pictured above on far right with her daughters and mother) just out of rehab walking eight miles each way to attend her court-mandated GED classes. An 11-year-old girl taking care of her drug-addled mother. Young men filling up on Doritos, Red Bull and candy bars to make it through an eight-hour shift in a coal mine. An Indian doctor who works in a local clinic noting that the conditions among the mountain people are worse than he saw in his native country.

You can’t watch this hour without welling up a few times. Sawyer makes the point that the spotlight that LBJ and RFK put on Appalachia in the 1960s did a lot of good for the area in terms of investments in infrastructure and education. Maybe this special will help renew a focus on the urgent needs of a new generation fighting 21st-century scourges — prescription drug abuse, meth, incest, malnutrition, woefully inadequate schools and job training services. It’s heartening that viewers turned out in the numbers they did for the initial airing. “Mountains” should get more exposure through online viewing on the ABC News website.

The ABC News site also has a list of non-profit groups trying to make a difference in the area. It’s a place to start.

Monday night update: As evidenced by the comments on this post, “Children of the Mountains” has provoked strong criticism from those who know the region well for being, in their view, one-sided and overly negative. Click here for a report on the local reaction to the special from WYMT-TV, the CBS affil serving Eastern Kentucky.

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  1. A man sooner or later discovers that he is the master-gardener of his soul, the director of his life. A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better. All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on. Any idiot can face a crisis – it’s day to day living that wears you out. Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact.

  2. Whenever we look into the obscene memories, a sexy debaucheries, a merciless plus tortuous xecutions, a undeniable vindictiveness by using which will over fifty percent a Word of god is definitely filled up, it would extra dependable that him and i get in touch with them the idea of on the satanic force versus the tatement with The lord. This is the track record with wickedness who has provided so that you can dodgy plus brutalize humankind; plus, to get this section, I actually genuinely do not like them, when i do not like all that is definitely merciless.

  3. I hope Diane Sawyer, that you will be the bridge between the poverty of these children into the upliftment of their standard of living.

  4. Brenda Lyle-Stivale says:

    I can’t believe anyone thinks that Diane Sawyer or the network deserve “kudos” for the piece. It was totally ratings geared. It depicted the worst, the most unseemly aspect of Appalachia, with absolutely no balance. I spent the first twelve years of my life there. My brothers both received scholarships from members of our great little town, Barbourville, which has a fabulous college, and sits smack in the middle of the “problem”. We, all ten children, who were orphaned (in addition to the other challenges we faced)have gone on to excel in our lives. The same is true of countless other Appalachians. The problem that was portrayed has everything to do with the individual, and NOT the area. There are drug addicts, incest, laziness, poorly paying jobs, and lack of character everywhere, including in Diane Sawyer’s “town”…wherever that may be. There are also hardworking, salt-of-the-earth, loving, gentle and good people in abundance all throughout Appalachia, several hundred to one, in comparison to those shown. This was a sell out by Diane. Deplorable!

  5. Amanda Fields says:

    I am from inez kentucky and I am currently living in florida. I would move back in a heartbeat if I could. My home is nothing like they made it out to beat. I see worse down here in Florida than I do anywhere. Maybe you should use some of that money you have to bring in more business’ and more stuff for the children to do. Why dont you come back again and do a report of all of Inez and not just the worse parts.

  6. Denise says:

    Sawyer’s 20/20 report was HURTFUL and TERRIBLY MISLEADING to all of our communities in Appalachia who are trying to grow and over come this type of stereotyping.
    Please follow this link to see the TRUTH about our communities…A virtual tour thru Inez, KY.
    She is using our poor children to gain another award. Shame on her!

  7. Denise says:

    I live in Eastern Ky. and I can prove this story is nothing but Sawyer using our poor children for her own personal gain. I know these people, they don’t have food because they abuse their foodstamps, then take the money to buy more drugs. They could work if they were coherent.
    We have help wanted signs up all over! Please follow this link to see what Diane Sawyer did not report, the REAL Inez, KY, hardly as she describes…..http://profile.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendid=454400236

  8. Michael Sanders says:

    My wife is from Eastern KY and we both went to medical school in Eastern KY. I didn’t see the report, but I can only imagine how ridiculous this report was. I saw a lot of crazy stuff there while training, but really not much more crazy than I’ve seen in other places I’ve trained. Yes, the prescription drug problem is huge, but the illegal drug problem is just as big in other states. Moreover, these people from the mountains that take and sell these prescription drugs don’t do this because they are from the mountains and don’t know any better. They do it because they are stupid. It’s got nothing to do with geographic location nor because they have no other opportunities. And why is men drinking Red Bull and eating candy bars to stay awake in the coal mines any different than someone in FL drinking red bull and eating candy bars to stay awake on the job? It’s not. It’s just a media-ploy to try to get your heart to break and get an emotional response. And finally, these poor kids don’t have an opportunity to go to college? That’s crap. I had to take out loans for undergrad and medical school. I worked all through college. No one paid this for me. Why can’t these kids do the same thing? They are using “living in the mountains” as an excuse to be lazy and get welfare. They need to man up and put their big boy panties on.

  9. KyMom says:

    Here’s why ABC did it: RATINGS !!!!
    “ABC deserves credit for giving a big promo push to the special, which helped it deliver an impressive number by the standards of Friday nights and non-tabloid-y newsmag segs.
    At 10 p.m., “20/20” brought in 10.9 million viewers and 3.4 rating/11 share in adults 18-49, giving ABC a rare victory over CBS’ “Numbers” in the hour and giving “20/20″ its biggest Friday night audience in four and a half years.”
    ABC and MsSawyer should be ashamed for exploiting these people and continuing to spread the stereotype of poor, pitiful Appalachia. It’s called “poorism”:
    Poverty tourism or poorism is a type of tourism, much akin to slumming, in which tourists travel to less developed places to observe people living in poverty. Poorism travel tours are popular in places like India, Ethiopia, and even places that have had natural disasters such as hurricanes and tsunamis. After Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana became a big poorism site.
    Critics say poorism is likened to a kind of voyeurism, exploiting people less fortunate, snapping pictures and leaving nothing in return.
    For decades, organizations like CAP have used the poor to raise millions of dollars, paying huge salaries to their directors and employees. Check out their tax returns:
    Look at the salaries, paid lobbyists, and over $1 million for printing and mailing their brochures to solicit money.
    They use pity to pad their own pockets and do little to actually break the cycle of poverty.

  10. EastKy Man says:

    “welfare programs encourage illegitimacy and dependency, and that they discourage people from obtaining education and job skills”
    That’s the main problem with appalachia. The majority of people work for Natural Resource companies, earn decent wages, don’t abuse that many substances. What you saw on TV was the people who were weened onto this dependence. Grimm is a hypocrit that you people don’t know. He is a bitch, and pulled that stuff hoping that people would give him something. Last time I checked Government financial aid paid more than enough for all your books & tuition at the local community college here. Grimm wouldn’t finish school anyway, because no one is going to give it to him. He just wants a hand out, and the people on that documentary are well versed in doling out their sob stories & recieving handouts. America is so fuckin stupid, and these hillbillies are dumb like a fox- laughing all the way to the bank. ABC doesn’t care about Appalachia, but documentaries based on the region are known for ratings & awards. I think I’m going to start a sitcom in my backyard “Doing pills & drinking mountain dew: My 8th grade stories.” Ith special guest Shawn Grimm. Watch me & Shawn do pills, drink mountain dew, and talkabout how bad the rest of America has it. Can you believe those people have too many teeth & are addicted to mind numbing Diane Sawyer interviews? Medicaid don’t even pay for cable… dumbases.

  11. KyMom says:

    Here’s where it started:
    One common criticism of the war on poverty is the incentives that it creates. Specifically, critics claim that the welfare programs encourage illegitimacy and dependency, and that they discourage people from obtaining education and job skills. Some examples follow:
    William L. Anderson, who teaches economics at Frostburg State University, wrote an opinion column explaining why he believes the war on poverty has caused more harm than good. To show his point, he compared two poor immigrant families to each other. According to Anderson, one family lived in a very small apartment. The parents obtained entry level jobs, and were eventually able to afford a larger apartment. A few years later, they had purchased their own home, and were now middle class. The other family started collecting welfare and food stamps, and living in Section 8 housing. Several years later, they were still dependent on those government programs, and had done nothing to improve their circumstances. Anderson concludes “… the Great Society programs… actually made things much worse.”
    In 2004, conservative African American economist Thomas Sowell, writing about the war on poverty, stated, “The black family, which had survived centuries of slavery and discrimination, began rapidly disintegrating in the liberal welfare state that subsidized unwed pregnancy and changed welfare from an emergency rescue to a way of life.”

  12. KyMom says:

    When Johnson enacted the “War On Poverty” in 1964, people began to rely on government handouts, instead of making their own way.
    Many of you can probably identify with my story:
    Growing up in Harlan County in the sixities, I walked to a 3 room schoolhouse with pot-bellied stoves and outside toliets. My grandparents didn’t have indoor plumbing, cooked on a wood stove, and had an outhouse, but they grew a huge garden and canned and preserved enough food to last us through the winter. My granny cleaned houses, took care of people’s babies, and cooked for others just to make ends meet. My father worked everyday. We took in other family members who needed help. We NEVER took handouts or government assistance; we had our pride. I worked hard in school, got a scholarship, and worked part-time to get myself thru college.
    Some folks didn’t go that route; they took the handouts. Now their legacy is 3rd and 4th generations of folks who know nothing but assistance….just like the folks we saw on the TV.
    They turn to drugs and alcohol because of depression and embarrassment. I’m sure they feel defeated and trapped.
    But my point is MORE HANDOUTS WILL NOT HELP ! Handouts are what has caused the problem. Tough love, accountibility and a complete overall of our social programs is needed.
    Assistance should be tied to sobriety. Everyone on assistance should be required to work or be in school. If they fail drug tests, they should lose their assistance and their children.

  13. KYgirl says:

    Diane Sawyer picked the lazy ones who do not want to better themselves. What about all that trash lying around?? To lazy to pick it up or burn it? What about all the mountain Dew and Pepsi?? They got money for that. They got money for booze to get drunk every night, money for drugs. Give me a break. As long as the “check” will arrive every month why should they better themselves?? However, I do give credit to the couple who walked 8 miles from and to their “government demanded” GD class.

  14. Alyssa says:

    I’m sorry about the typos in my other comment I was in a hurry.

  15. Alyssa says:

    I was actually offended by this. I’m from eastern Kentucky and I have family that lives in Pike County and not everyone lives this way. I’m tired of people stereotyping us to be this way. My grandpa was one of eight kids and none of his brothers or sisters or any of their kids or grandkids live this way, and almost all of them live in eastern Kentucky. My grandpa was oldest and he didn’t finnish school but he was intelligent. He knew business and lots of people he knew him would tell you he was a great electrician.
    There are families who live like this but they are not all of us. I’m currently going to college and working, my family has a nice house it may not be big but its a nice house on my grandpas farm. My dad could have gone to college but like most people around he wanted to get start making money right away. He’s a pipefitter and he would do anything to keep us away from drugs and from living like this. People need to know that not everyone here lives like this. This just showed one side of life here but people need to see our side to.

  16. Lee says:

    Diane Sawyer
    Thank you
    I lived that poverty life, I have struggle all my life with
    the lack of a education. coming to the big city,
    from west virginia, was hard people were mean.
    I beleive that every child can learn and united state of american should ensure that every child dose. by the way i am old and still trying to educated my self,the education I have is self tought. maybe our new presedent Obama. will help. all people, I beleive he will…
    i still cry for that small child.
    thank you so much…

  17. Ladonna Ball says:

    I was outraged to see the show about the children of the mountains. My husband and I live here in Pike County and we have 4 children and work day to day jobs from 9-5 with an income of about 35 thousand a year and we still manage to feed and cloth our children. We do not drive anything newer than a 1996 and we do not own our home but our children will never live this way. I think that they have given half of America the wrong idea about Kentucky. Some people may have issues such as lack of neccessities but there are no excuses. I would walk to the store if I had too and I would bath my child in a public rest room with a paper towel if I needed too. And as far as coal miners, they made it look like that people who work in the coal mine are just uneducated, thats not entirely true my grandpa worked in the mines his whole life and went on to work with a hazmat crew and he has a nie home as well as 4 others for his sons and daughters and owns alot of land and about 5 vehicles. To hollywood make a note, just because we do not have 5 millin dollar homes and limos to drive us every where to go doesnt mean that we need your help and for alot of people here in the area they are always hiring at walmart or something , if you can pass a drug test.

  18. Harlan says:

    I wonder if ABC checked out CAP before recommending donations. I urge everyone to look closely at their financial reports and see where your money will go: $140,000 to President + $13K expense account; $88,000 salary to VP + $9K expense account; $65,000 salary to a secretary; $124,000 to a Professional FundRaiser; $82,000 to a Lobbyist; $3,238,000 to printing and mailing of their brochures asking for donations.
    Maybe CAP should just hire some of these folks who need help and put them on their big fat payroll !

  19. Alyssa says:

    To be honest I am strongly upset by this whole production. First of all, the recordings made at Johnson Central High School were all based on a lie. ABC came claiming that they wanted to film for a sports documentary.I know this because I am from Lawrence County (Located less than 30 miles from Johnson County)and have friends that attend JCHS. As for the guy that lived out of his truck, it isn’t uncommon for anyone to live out of their automobile…It happens in a hell of a lot more places than Eastern Kentucky.
    The lovely people that graced the televsion on friday night are not all that populates the eastern reagion. In fact, You see less of unwell people than those numbers and sterotypes let on. Martin County (Inez on 20/20) is a fairly farm land and hollowed area. The hollows and horrible ghastly houses and poverty are their ghettos. I know that sounds harsh but living here all my life I know it’s true. Just like any city has it’s bad areas so does Kentucky. I am not saying that these people do not need help, but I do think Sawyer could have done her home state more good by showing the better sides. The nice country homes, full gardens, horses, well kept neighborhoods, and students that aren’t on drugs or looking for trouble. It’s not all we’re made up of and it really really annoys me. I am 17 and I will soon be going to beauty school in Portland Oregon. Now, I suspect that when I go to school in Portland people will be keen to ask me where I from and I retort with “Kentucky” and they’ll want to know the whereabouts, I get to say “eastern” and then I automatically get treated like a class lower than them. It’s not right. My family works and we have a decent home and don’t have to worry about much. This day in time almost everyone worries but that’s not my point. My point is that making documentaries like this about a general area is subjecting the people to harsh sterotypes and judgment all over the United States. Personally, I am just sick and tired of being called a hillbilly or getting the “wow you look normal” when I go to other places. Try going on a vaction if you live in eastern Kentucky.
    This sounds like I’m full of mean sprit, but in reality I’m not. I just think people would care more about the conditions of the poverty struck areas if she would have put more effort in making it look less like that is all EK is.

  20. kathy ball says:

    i watched this show and cried.
    these are the same Mt roads i traveled with my now ex-husband.
    the people there are so very poor but the best Brother inlaw,siter in law and their 3 children are thee best people from Inez that I ever knew and loved so dearly.
    all 3 kids are young adults and have made good names for themselves and have great jobs.
    but this is where my ex-husband went back to live.
    thank you for the program.
    i pray to God those children and that young Football Player can somehow leave there.
    these are the children you would go without for to help.
    they are so full of Dreams and love to be better.
    god bless each and everyone there.

  21. Ashley says:

    I am from Eastern Kentucky and yes i go to school and know many people that dont have much. i feel sorry for them so i do as much as i can by just talking to them,asking them how their day is going, or just make them laugh. im not a rich person or anything, we are just average and i never take it for granted. im happy for where i come from is the best place to grow up at than anyone can ask for. this 20/20 special i think is heartwrenching and at the same time, its somewhat offending to many people even to me because i think that the appalachian region is viewed as the poorest and most miserable place to be. dont get me wrong, there are people that dont have much and i feel their pain but not everyone is like that around here. its like being characterized as the place where poverty is at its worst. & the title “Children of the Mountains” ….wow, you make it sound like we live it huts and we run around butt naked. i didnt like what Diane Sawyer did, besides the fact that she brought attention to the region and that people here need help its not just that. its like she only viewed the worst parts of our region.
    –God bless all of these people<3
    ill keep you all in my prayers.

  22. Kiely says:

    I really am in love with the football player. I just want to know where he lives in Kentucky on tommorows Good Morning America show?. I just want to say thank you for that and I want to help someway and plus I want to vist thoose certain people who were on the show. I am grossed out and it hurts to see and or hear that people that are getting abused by their brothers or even strangers and when I heard that girl say that her brother [not the football player but the boy who was wearing the blue sweatshirt] made her take drugs and so thathe could do sex with her just grossed me out I love you diane and i just want to marry the crying football player and adopt him HE IS SO CUTE I really want people to do missinarie trips there and not ouside of the country thank you

  23. From There... says:

    This documentary is accurate. They are not trying to sterotype us. These are the forgotten children. These are the kids I don’t even see or know about and I live here – Knox Co. These are the people that need help the most and can’t or don’t know how to get it. Of course all of Southeast KY in not like this. This is a documentary about the problems this region faces – not the Super WalMarts, subdivisions, better schools, and wealth as you get closer and closer to I-75.

  24. Jason says:

    I thought the show was totally ridiculous, how many more shows are going to be done on the stereotypical topics of Kentucky? why didn’t they show the super-Wal-Mart in Paintsville Kentucky on the way to the back woods hollers, why didn’t they show all nice homes that all around Jim Booth, no of course they wouldn’t do that it would make it seem like we have something more than shacks here.

  25. Jason says:

    I thought the show was totally ridiculous, how many more shows are going to be done on the stereotypical topics of Kentucky? why did they show the super-Wal-Mart in Paintsville Kentucky on the way to the back woods hollers, why did they show all nice homes that all around Jim Booth, no of course they wouldn’t do that it would make it seem like we have something more than shacks here.

  26. Cynthia says:

    Thank you for your thoughts. If you go to the ABCNews.com home page, at the very bottom of the page, in very small print, there are links labeled “Feedback” and “Contact Us.” You can use those links to send an email to Diane Sawyer and “20/20” producers and to post your feedback on the special.

  27. Norma says:

    Commenting on Shelly Cole’s posting, I am also extremely angry about Shawn Grimm’s having to drop out of college…. I find it hard to believe that Diane Sawyer (a Kentucky native making around 27 million a year?) can’t pay for his clothing and other expenses while there? He got a scholarship & is a fantastic young man – he deserves more than to have to go back & live in that horrible environment. There has to be someone who can help him and the other children shown in this documentary. It is morally wrong to sit back and do nothing & there is NO reason why the rich people can’t help to make a real difference. How can any decent person watch this and not be moved to action!? Something must be done now. How can people help? Diane needs to do another show to inform people on what they can do and also to give us updates on these beautiful children………

  28. Shelly Cole says:

    My family as well as my husband’s are from Appalachia.Specifically Owsley and Perry Counties. Our families got out because there was no work and because they were able to. The people I saw Friday night don’t have the means or a way out We still go “down home” to visit and it’s heartbreaking. My mom and I watched the episode Friday and were in tears numerous times. My heart goes out to all of them but I am furious with what happened to Shawn Grimm. He wanted to do better, he wanted out and got himself out but had no way of getting books for college, food, or paying for anything else that college requires. As a teacher, I am wondering why his high school teachers and coaches didn’t help him. I want to help him. He needs and wants to go to school and make something better of his life – does anyone know how rare that is for a kid his age?
    I want to help and want to know what to do.

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