Published: Feb. 16, 2016 at 4:01 PM EST
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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

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The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved.

-Mother Teresa