Last Sunday night, NBC viewers across the country got a glimpse into the despair that is choking the life out of Ohio’s Appalachia.
The “Dateline” special, reported over nine months by Ann Curry and titled “America Now: Friends and Neighbors,” was a heartbreaking hour of television for Ohioans. It was like opening your personal diary to the saddest parts and letting the whole world read:
A high-school whiz kid becomes a 21-year-old mother sleeping in a van with three young children.
Fourteen relatives crowd into one tiny house to survive.
A father who loses one job after another wonders aloud whether he’d be worth more dead than alive to his boys.
Fade to images of American flags whipping in the wind and an anguished mother softly singing: And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.
Poor — and patriotic.
The show was rough viewing, but it was also an oasis in the increasingly parched land of social justice reporting. Curry dug deep in one corner of Ohio to tell the story of hunger and poverty across America and never traded Ohio Appalachians’ dignity for drama. (Full disclosure: Curry interviewed me once on the “Today” show.)
Jack Frech has talked to countless reporters in his 29 years as director of Job and Family Services in Athens County. Usually, they drop in for a few hours and leave. This story was different, he said.
“They asked the right questions. The question isn’t, ‘Why are all those people standing in line at a food pantry?’ The question is, ‘Why aren’t federal and state programs providing enough assistance?’ And where’s the outrage over policies that bail out banks and people at the top but won’t help the millions of people who fall under the poverty line?”
Curry focused on Lisa Roberts, a struggling 46-year-old wife and mother who runs the Friends and Neighbors food pantry in Lottridge, Ohio. Roberts began helping the hungry more than a decade ago because of her father-in-law, Brice Roberts.
“He started this work out of a little closet in the church,” she said, and then she started to cry. “He died seven years ago. I wish he were here to see what has become of his work. He would be so, so proud.” He was a factory worker who died at age 67 from asbestos poisoning and mesothelioma.
Before the NBC show aired, Roberts was “worried sick” about how she was going to continue to serve the 3,000 people relying on her center for survival. Now the donations are coming in. For a while, anyway.
“I am very, very grateful,” she said. “But there are 219 member agencies in southeast Ohio alone and thousands more across the country. Everybody needs help.”
Her only complaint about the show had nothing to do with Curry’s reporting.
“Have you seen those awful comments on the show’s website?” she said. “People attacked one of the girls for having nice fingernails. But she does her own nails, and she gets her polish at yard sales.”
Her voice broke. She took a deep breath.
“Right before you called, I was comforting one of the couples who’d been on the show. He was wearing a gold chain, and some people said he should have to sell it if he’s so hungry. But it’s an heirloom from his grandparents. It’s the only thing of theirs he has left, and yes, there are days when he goes hungry instead of selling it.”
How can we in the media justify asking people to spill their souls for attribution and then subject them to the public venom of cowards with made-up names? Monitor comments — or shut them down.
In June, Roberts mailed to the White House more than 1,000 paper plates signed by Appalachians asking President Barack Obama for help. She told Curry this one really got to her: My husband worked all his life to take care of us. He died hungry.
She hadn’t heard a word back until Tuesday, when NBC told her the White House had confirmed delivery.
“I don’t need the president to call,” she said. “I just want him to hold those plates in his hands and know there’s a real person behind every one of them.”
Go to tiny.cc/HUNGRY to watch Ann Curry’s report.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer
Prize-winning columnist for The
Plain Dealer in Cleveland and an
essayist for Parade magazine.