Whitesburg KY

Fox News commentator says Appalachia is ‘hopeless’

Appalachia is a poor and “hopeless” region because people who live here won’t “help themselves,” Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly says.

O’Reilly also believes “that the culture in Appalachia harms the children almost beyond repair,” and that people who live here should look to move out of the region as soon as possible.

“I did some volunteer work in Berea, Kentucky,” O’Reilly said during the Feb. 13 episode of The O’Reilly Factor. “I know the area pretty well. There’s really nothing we can do about it. … When I was doing the volunteer work, kids get married at 16 and 17. Their parents are drunks. I’m generalizing now. There’s a lot of meth. There’s a lot of irresponsibility. Look, if I’m born in Appalachia, the first chance I get, I’d go to Miami, because that’s where the jobs are.”

O’Reilly’s comments about the region were made during a discussion with guest Diane Sawyer, whose documentary on poverty in eastern Kentucky, “A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains,” aired on ABC-TV’s “20/20” program later that night.

O’Reilly told Sawyer he thought her documentary was a waste of time because “there’s really nothing” that can be done to cure the region from what he called “a cycle of poverty for 200 years.”

“If you grow up and you see this, you get the heck out of there,” O’Reilly told Sawyer, who is a native of Kentucky. “You don’t stay there.”

O’Reilly appeared to be unaware that Harlan County, Johnson County, and the other areas of eastern Kentucky featured in Sawyer’s documentary have been timbered, mined for coal, and drilled for natural gas and oil since early last century.

“I don’t want to rebuild the infrastructure of Appalachia,” O’Reilly said. “I want to leave it pristine, it’s beautiful.”

Told by Sawyer that the documentary was intended to show that children in Appalachia are as smart as children anywhere else but lack the same opportunities, O’Reilly said, “I got to tell you, people have to help themselves. They have to wise up and they have to see that there is a culture of poverty there, a culture of ignorance there. And you either leave or you try to improve it anyway you can.”

O’Reilly also took pains to point out that residents of eastern Kentucky shouldn’t be confused with those who live in other areas of the state.

“Appalachia is just a little part of Kentucky,” O’Reilly said. “The rest of Kentucky is very prosperous these days.”

Sawyer’s documentary focused on four stories, including high school football star Shawn Grim, who was living out of his car and dreaming of getting away. Other children dealt with drug-addicted parents and a future of work in dangerous coal mines.

The stories were a framework to illustrate problems in the community, from the rise in illegal prescription drug dealing to the widespread use of the soft drink Mountain Dew that is rotting teeth. The documentary indicated that children who grow up here face few options: working at Wal-Mart or fast food restaurants, dealing drugs or a life in the mines among them.

Sawyer told O’Reilly the younger generation of Appalachian residents would be able to do well if they had better access to computers and other technological advances.

“The great opportunity is the information economy,” Sawyer said. “… These kids are as smart as the kids in India. These kids are as smart as the kids in Mexico.”

“But their parents are screwed up,” interrupted O’Reilly.

O’Reilly told Sawyer that neither private donations nor taken by the federal government will help the region.

“I don’t want to sound hopeless about it, but I think it is hopeless,” O’Reilly said. “I don’t think the government can do anything about it.”

Meanwhile, Sawyer and ABC News have elicited strong reactions to the documentary. “A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains.” As of 8 p.m. Tuesday, 1,692 comments had been posted on the story’s Web page. In central Appalachia, the initial complaints appear to be stronger than the praise. But the dialogue continues.

Chris Green, a teacher of Appalachian literature and culture at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., told the local Herald-

Dispatch “that while the broadcast touched on the severe problems faced by some in the mountains, it was ultimately a gross stereotype,” Bill Rosenberger reported. Green said, “Sawyer has selected special cases and represented them in a way that blames the victim by providing almost no discussion of the larger social economic realities, both in Appalachia and in America. We would all have been better off without it.”

But Dee Davis of the Whitesburg-based Center for Rural Strategies, who appeared on the show, said it told some uncomfortable truths that need to be told about persistent poverty, low education, poor health status and prescription-drug addiction. In an interview with the web site The Rural Blog, Davis noted the report’s point that southeastern Kentucky’s 5th Congressional District has the nation’s lowest life expectancy, “less than Mexico and China,” and asked, “Who’s dealing with it? The newspapers aren’t spending a lot of time dealing with it, the television stations aren’t dealing with it. Where are our journalists dealing with it?” If Sawyer and her producers “weren’t gonna tell that, who’s gonna tell it?”

As often happens with such projects, the documentary has prompted charity for its subjects. Sawyer reported on “Good Morning America” Tuesday that a child with a drug-addicted mother is getting a tutor and an education trust fund; another is getting clothes and house repairs; and a high-school football star who lived in a truck to escape his dysfunctional family has been offered college scholarships and jobs. Also, Pepsico will help a dentist who tagged its Mountain Dew as a major cause of tooth decay.

“We will tell you about that later this week,” Sawyer promised.

Compiled from staff, Associated

Press, and Rural Blog reports.

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