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.