Television highlights Kentucky, for good and ill

This seems to be Kentucky month on the small screen. If you didn’t like Diane Sawyer’s view, KET has something completely different.

Our Kentucky, an hour-long video valentine to the state’s scenic beauty, debuts on KET1 Saturday at 8 p.m. as part of the network’s annual on-air fundraiser. In tone and content, it couldn’t be more different from Sawyer’s report on systemic poverty in Appalachia for ABC’s news magazine 20/20.

It’s coincidence that these TV programs came out within two weeks of each other. In many ways, they represent the two sides of Kentucky’s coin — both begging us to scratch below the surface.

In Our Kentucky, KET’s videographers visited Kentucky’s most beautiful places, bathed in golden sunlight and rendered in high-definition splendor. We see panorama after panorama, set to majestic music and evocative narration by Nick Clooney.

There are fawns grazing in mountain meadows at sunrise, geese flying in formation framed by the setting sun, egrets swimming in misty cypress swamps. The camera lingers on such places as Chained Rock in Bell County, Natural Bridge in Powell County and Pennyrile State Forest in Christian County.

We see historic homes, foals romping across manicured Bluegrass pastures and the awe-inspiring cathedrals of Covington. There’s the 21st century skyline of Louisville, the 19th century skyline of Augusta and distilleries as noted for their quaint charm as for their fine bourbon.

It’s an idyllic view of Kentucky — true, as far as it goes.

Sawyer’s documentary, A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains, follows the lives of several poor children and young people in Eastern Kentucky. They’re shown trying to survive in a seemingly hopeless environment of poverty, drug abuse and a lack of enough good food, healthcare, education and economic opportunity. The report is true, as far as it goes.

The documentary attracted 10.9 million viewers nationwide when it aired Feb. 13 — the biggest 20/20 audience in more than four years. As expected, it drew fire from some Kentuckians who saw it as nothing more than a rehash of old stereotypes. After all, Sawyer could have found plenty of poor people on the cab ride out of New York to catch her plane.

Some complained that the program and a brief ABC News followup didn’t do enough to highlight progress and the efforts Kentuckians have made to help their less-fortunate neighbors.

Others, however, have responded with introspection, asking what more Kentuckians could do. Some of the most thoughtful reaction I have seen has been on WYMT-TV in Hazard, which could teach many big-city stations a thing or two about public-service broadcasting.

Appalachian scholar Ron Eller of the University of Kentucky, who appeared briefly in the documentary, wishes Sawyer, a Kentucky native, had focused more on the root causes of Eastern Kentucky’s problems and why so many efforts to solve them have failed.

“On the other hand, I think the program was quite successful at drawing attention to the persistence of poverty and social inequity in the Commonwealth,” he said.

National attention is helpful, Eller said. Ultimately, though, Kentuckians must create the modern economy, honest government and adequate infrastructure needed to lift Appalachia.

I missed Sawyer’s documentary when it first aired, so I watched it online Monday evening, immediately after viewing a preview DVD of Our Kentucky. In an odd way, watching them together made both more thought-provoking.

You won’t see any strip mines in Our Kentucky, no scalped mountaintops, factory hog farms or polluted streams. The Bluegrass meadows aren’t bordered by strip malls, big-box stores, McMansion cul-de-sacs or sprawling developments of cookie-cutter homes.

“The aspects of pride we have in who we are and where we live are often at odds with the way of life we have chosen for ourselves,” Eller noted. “But out of that strong sense of place could come actions to protect that land and the quality of life.”

Neither Sawyer’s documentary nor Our Kentucky tell the whole story. It would be asking too much to expect them to. But they’re both worth watching, because together they show Kentuckians what needs fixing — and why it’s worth the effort.