Snake Handlers, Strippers and the KKK: CNN's Portrait of "Everyday Life in Appalachia"

Posted by Matt Wasson | May 9, 2012 at 9:56 am


So CNN ran a sensationalized and superficial story built on stereotypes that lacked any news value. Big news, right? Grow up, kid, this is the entertainment business…

That’s an excerpt from the conversation in my head before deciding to write a post about the photo-essay that was posted on the front page of CNN.com on Monday with the teaser image of a burning cross. The link was titled “Everyday Life in Appalachia.

Teaser Image for CNN's "Everyday Life in Appalachia"Photo Essay

I’ll spare you the righteous indignation and the pages of moralizing that virtually burst from my fingertips and get right to the point of why it’s worth calling attention to this particularly offensive piece of pseudo-journalistic garbage: misleading stereotypes have real world consequences.

In speaking with people all over the country for the last 10 years about the need to end the wholesale destruction of Appalachian mountains ,streams and communities from mountaintop removal coal mining, I often get the question: why are local people letting this happen? The answer, of course, is that they are not letting it happen. Weall Americans — are letting it happen.

We are allowing a unique and distinctly American culture and the oldest and most biologically diverse mountains and streams on the continent to be destroyed because it’s something we believe is happening somewhere else to somebody else. Of course it’s sad that these charming, albeit hopelessly degenerate cross burners, snake handlers and shirtless, barefoot hillbillies are being displaced by the march of progress, but it’s not like it’s something that is happening to people like me

Except that it is. The real Appalachia looks a lot more like the photos on your smartphone than the photos of snake handlers and burning crosses that CNN billed as “Everyday Life in Appalachia.”

What would happen if Americans realized that people just like them – accountants, engineers, welders, professors, miners, truckers, teachers, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters – are living with polluted drinking water, are three times as likely to have children born with birth defects and have a life expectancy comparable to that in developing countries like Iran, Syria, El Salvador and Vietnam? At Appalachian Voices, our theory has long been that bringing Americans to this realization is a crucial prerequisite for mustering the national will to end the destruction of Appalachian mountains and communities by mountaintop removal coal mining. For this reason, CNN’s prejudiced and exploitative treatment of Appalachian culture is not just offensive, but extremely damaging.

It’s hard for a small, under-resourced organization in Appalachia to compete with CNN’s megaphone, which is why we need your help. We set up a facebook page and a twitter hash tag #realappalachia for our friends and allies to show CNN and all Americans what the real Appalachia looks like. Here’s your assignment: post, tweet or e-mail a few of your favorite pictures of Appalachia and we’ll compile them here, on facebook and share them with the editors of CNN.com.

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16 Responses

  1. Chrissy says:

    I can’t understand why this is even interesting – every state has it’s people who live below the “norm.” So what. Real interesting news would be how all of us in the US benefit from coal energy yet have no idea what it’s like to watch your state destroyed, your water left undrinkable, your children and parents poisoned, and your reputation shot if you so much as speak a word against the largest employers. It’s a travesty and the rest of the country’s oblivious to it. I say shut out reporters on a grass roots level until they start showing the rest of the US/world how one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems is being destroyed at an alarmingly fast pace + the affects it has on Appalachians and our country – the mountains belong to everyone, not just the coal companies – and we should all speak up against their destruction.

  2. Kathy Selvage says:

    WOW! Thanks to a one-man army defending Appalachia this morning. You are right on so many points, Matt. It is not as though these protrayals don’t exist in Appalachia–they do–but it is far from the whole picture if anyone cared enough to look closely.

    The jokes, the verbal insults, and even the silent disdain hurled at Appalachia daily is ever bit as degradating to Appalachia’s humanity as the Appalachian mountains being destroyed around them. I personally believe that it is more than an opportunity to poke fun at their strange language and habits.

    I believe that when we degrade, insult, demonize, or protray in any manner others to be less than us, it is then more acceptable to steal and destroy their natural resources with no benefit to them, it is then easier to accept that they will have shorter life spans while they power the lights for the big cities. It is unjust; justice is benefits and costs being shared broadly.

    The Apalachians are a national treasure and the challenge of power production is a national challenge and cries aloud for a national solution to protect a national treasure–the Appalachians, both its land and its people.

  3. jamie says:

    @Chrissy: I would disagree with one point you mention, that this is not as important as the mountains being blown up. Sadly I am afraid that perpetuating these stereotypes makes it EASIER for the coal industry to blow the Appalachian mountains up, because the rest of the country might not be as quick to jump at helping what they have been misled to believe is a region of backward, bigoted, hateful and cultish people (and this is FAR from the first time it’s happened). This is a very negative stereotype with potentially far-reaching repercussions. I see this as being completely connected.

  4. Sabrina says:

    Sorry guys. I am from there. Right there in Boone, NC. I was born there and raised there. Being a transgender person I am scared to death to actually come back home, simply BECAUSE of the irrational hatred and bigotry shown me by local residents, many of them my family and former “friends”.. While I admit that this fluff piece does not accurately portray day to day life in the mountains of NC, it absolutely DOES exist. With the major turnout the other day by people who supported Amendment 1, you proved yourself how far reaching the bigotry is, and the ignorance of the people living in NC. So you cant really blame all of this on CNN. You need to look in the mirror. This Judd fellow getting 40% of the voted in the W Virginia primary further points to the ignorance of Appalachia. Parts of Kentucky are even worse..

    If you want to erase this stereotype, bring the residents of Appalachia into the 21st century, and stop making laws based on a myth written thousands of years ago. When everyone agrees to live and let live, this stereotype will be gone.

    Concerning the mountains and the coal industry, this kind of crap will continue to happen until people stop opposing cap and trade, and imposes some sanctions and regulations on the coal industry. YOU have to do it. The citizens of the state that is being ripped apart. Placing the blame on people who want cheaper energy is disingenuous at best. If YOU won’t take a stand, and vote out these backward thinking Republicans, and find some true leadership, no one else is going to, for certain. Get off your duffs and make something happen before you start pointing fingers. 🙂

    Thanks for letting me share.

  5. Linda Regula says:

    This is the sterotyping that seems to affirm the coal companies’ claim that they have to make decisions for these poor ignorant citizens so they have free rein to destroy the Appalachian Mountains, the enviroment, and the quality of life of those who live in these mountains. I’ve written a novel “Wildflowers Don’t Care Where They Grow” that will hopefully draw attention to what is going on, and to the wonderful intelligent people who fight these big corporations and the politicians who allow them to rape the land.

  6. Sabrina says:

    PS: In reading through your publication, I can see that at least a few of you ARE actually getting off your duffs and doing something about it. Kudos to you for that 🙂 Maybe when there are enough of you, Appalachia can shed this negativity. 🙂

  7. jamie says:

    @Sabrina — thanks, we’re trying. And just to let you know, Boone, N.C. / Watauga County voted against Amendment 1, some 60% against, as I understand. As did the areas around Asheville, Winston-Salem, Chapel Hill, and Charlotte (think I got them all). Little pockets of rationality. I hope you can come home one day…

  8. Sabrina says:

    Thank you for that Jamie. It does my heart good when I find one of the few people around who understand. It is a beautiful area, and I miss the place, just few of the people 🙂 Good to know about Watauga, also. Maybe things are changing more rapidly than I have given credit. I would like to stop by for a visit should I decide to come back for a minute to check things out. 🙂

  9. Sabrina says:

    FYI: I am unsure if you guys have seen this or not, but I would like to pass it on. Perhaps you could spread this around as well, so that everyone will not lump the artist in with CNN for the way they handled this. I found it a very interesting interview. 🙂

    http://therevivalist.info/cnn-photos/

  10. Suzy says:

    I agree with Sabrina that change has these portraits highlight a very real, significant portion of Appalachia that needs to be addressed- and that all communities have aspects that are difficult and even dangerous. However, fighting against negative stereotypes doesn’t really solve the problem at hand.

    I feel that the best way to solve the issues of mountain top removal and equal rights is through education. If you look at the parts of NC where Amendment One was opposed- they are all hubs of education.

    You can spend a lot of time fighting in DC, blasting CNN, or trying to change stereotypes through photo essays of waterfalls and fields, but I don’t think that will bring the outcomes you are seeking. Focusing on providing an education to the people of Appalachia makes more sense IMHO. Education is the only thing that can give the citizens of Appalachia the tools they need to create positive change in their own communities. I have also found that fighting for something is far more emotionally and financially sustainable in the nonprofit sector than fighting against something.

    And honestly Boone is the exception, not the rule in terms of greater Appalachia. Cute college kids and liberal artists are almost as much a minority as the KKK members and snakes handlers. Most of Appalachia is made up of white, blue collar (read significantly poorer than nat’l average), Christians with no college degrees. In fact we rank almost 10% lower than the national average for higher education, and have higher high school drop out rates. (Source: http://www.arc.gov/research/researchreportdetails.asp?REPORT_ID=96) I see the lack of access to quality education is the root of all of these problems. My guess is you can do the most good as an organization by starting there.

    Appalachia has been my chosen home for 10 years now, and I’ve had the good fortune to live in several different communities in NC, SC and GA. I hope that Appalachian Voices can succeed in it’s mission. This is a beautiful and unique region that deserves to be persevered and protected. And our community members deserve to be empowered and educated. Best of luck to your team.

  11. Elle says:

    It’s really important to actually read the story and artist statement that went with the photos.

  12. sandra says:

    Hi Suzy,

    There are a number of issues plaguing our region (and our country), and education would definitely help. But a lack of opportunity for people who are (or want to be) educated is another huge problem.

    I have talked to many a person who were from the region, from places like southern West Virginia, who love the region, but saw that the only future that was available to them was a coal job or a low-paying retail job.

    Mountaintop removal coal mining is destructive not only to mountains, but to a communities’ economic and physical health.

    There have been a number of studies showing how mountaintop removal literally sickens people sick and shortens their lives. You can see in visual form, the health issues that plagues communities with mountaintop removal here: http://ilovemountains.org/the-human-cost. The congressional districts with the lowest well-being rankings are congressional districts with the most mountaintop removal mining.

    This moves right into the economic issues. What entrepreneur wants to set up shop in an area where the water smells like rotten eggs and runs like tomato soup; where the people tend to be physically unwell and don’t live as long?

    And perpetuating stereotypes, like CNN has chosen to do, ensures that Appalachia is looked down upon and ignored. It allow egregious practice like mountaintop removal continued, and like Mr. Wasson talks about allows Americans to think Appalachia as another place, and as Appalachian people as people unlike them. But to me, Appalachia is an American treasure, and the physical place, as well as its place in history, needs to be recognized, protected, and appreciated.

    Pieces like CNN’s photo slide show promotes the region as “other” and therefore easily destroyed.

  13. sandra says:

    Elle, we definitely don’t begrudge the artist. If you do read deeply enough into it, then you know what her intent was. Unfortunately, most people don’t, and CNN’s portrayal will stick in many a person’s mind because it reinforces stereotypes that already reside in peoples’ minds.

    Someone already posted it, but just in case, here is the artist responding: http://therevivalist.info/cnn-photos/

  14. Suzy says:

    Sandra, I run a nonprofit that provides energy education. You don’t have to tell me about the huge human costs of coal- it is something I am very aware of. I shared concerns and suggestions about Appalachian Voice’s approach because I want you to succeed in your goals. Again, I just wanted to suggest that you focus on moving towards solutions, rather than just “awareness” of problems. Education can also provide local citizens the tools they need to start small businesses and provide jobs (mountain bizworks in a’ville is a great model). I don’t just mean college degrees. Again, good luck.

  15. Donna says:

    I too live here. And it is a shame that people are being portrayed this way are by the very ones that are getting the most out of the area. They do (coal operators and backroom local, good ole boy clubs) want people to think we are ignorant and cant manage without their help but it isn’t true. Education in local schools has been run by these same folks for so long just to keep the mines filled with “strong backs and weak mind”. Very few realize that they are dying because of pollution from the coal mining. They have been convinced that it is their lifestyle not the water they are drinking. One small community that had a mines above it has lost many young people in their forties to cancer.
    It is going to take time, this is all they have known for years and school has so many bad memories for so many that it just wasn’t an option at that time. I still have hope that they will wake up before our mountains are all gone.

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