NBC Washington Not the First to Bash West Virginia

Date Written by Jason Keeling on December 23, 2009

Once again, the Mountain State has been smeared by commentary distributed via a major media conglomerate. NBC Washington columnist Chris Needham featured an account of the public records database developed by the state Division of Culture and History, a system that had previously received praise as “fantastic” in comparison to similar efforts across the country.

In his Dec. 18 piece, entitled “West Virginia Discovers the Internet,” Needham chose to ignore the database’s various advantages. Instead, he thought it more appropriate to generalize and degrade West Virginians, describing them as “yokel neighbors” living in “tar-paper shacks.”

Though they likely can’t access the Internet, he said, if they could, they’d discover “a listing of all the birth certificates for people named Cletus…and a listing of all the weddings in the state where both the bride and the groom had the last name ‘Smith.’”

Needham continues: “…they have to poop in their backyard, running through the cold, fearing that the trap door on their red flannel pajamas should pop open early, exposing their nether regions to the bite of the winds? Why do we have to make fun of them for their misfortune?”

His conclusion: “The site has all the data they have that’s legally shareable. Birth certificates can’t be shared for 100 years; death certificates are on ice for 50. Records from the Civil War aren’t available, as well as a few gaps where fire or flood took out a courthouse or two.

“But if you’ve ever wondered what Hank Williams’ death registry looks like (you can put your hand down), now you can die happy. (And have someone from WV look at it 50 years later, once the Internet finally comes to the state.)”

Discovering ‘Local Color’ in the Mountains

Needham’s description of the state is nothing new and could be considered “old as the hills.” Instead of countering his negative depictions, let’s look at the issue from a historical perspective.

“The Invention of Appalachia” offers insight into the formation of Appalachian stereotypes. Author Allen Batteau calls attention to a literary phenomenon that occurred during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Known as the “local color movement,” free-lance writers from urban centers like Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York ventured into the Appalachian Mountain region in pursuit of “interesting” stories.

Their works were published in periodicals such as Scribner’s, The Century, Appleton’s, The Living Review and Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. The overtones of local colorist writings often contained exaggerated depictions of the region’s inhabitants as uneducated, isolated savages, describing an inherent “otherness” within their characters, which also contained frequent references to drunkenness and folly. Unfortunately, many of these fictitious stories were postured as journalism.

Scholar Henry Shapiro says that publisher motives at the time were two-fold: First to sell magazines and secondly, “to tell their middle-class readers what they wanted to hear: That it was the center of the universe and the true bearer of American culture.”

Most contemporary urbanites and the majority of Appalachians are ignorant of the above literary movement, yet the exaggerated images portrayed by the local colorists continue to rear their ugly head. The key term in this analysis is ignorance, which tends to insidiously proliferate such distorted perceptions.

Appalachia 2.0

Fortunately, ignorance can be overcome through exposure to the previously unfamiliar. Today, one of the best tools for challenging misconceptions is the Internet. Unlike the days in which people had little means of publicly defending their image, the slighted can now stand up virtually and educate others as to the realities of who they are.

D.C. blogger and West Virginia expatriate Karl Johnson offered the first objection to Needham’s writing, and word of the episode quickly spread online. Subsequently, many people expressed offense to NBC Washington, which pulled the piece. Needham has since posted an apology in the form of a blog comment.

Though the Internet provides a medium in which we can better challenge stereotypes, let’s not forget there are bits of truth to generalized depictions, as poverty does exist here, economic expansion needs to occur more rapidly here, there are many health problems here, there are environmental challenges here, etc.

Therefore, let’s not only celebrate the great things about West Virginia, but let’s continue to use the Internet in a fashion that betters our state and region by addressing its challenges as well.

- Keeling is a public relations and online communications consultant.

Additional blog posts relating to the Needham commentary:

10 Responses to “NBC Washington Not the First to Bash West Virginia”

  1. Elizabeth Gaucher said:

    As usual this blog is at the forefront of intelligent commentary on issues affecting West Virginia. This post raises a genuinely interesting point that on some level I think we all need to decide how we will manage.

    Somtimes one group of people “needs” something, and if they can’t find it easily and naturally they may need it enough to invent it. Insecure middle class people “need” West Virginia to be as Needham describes it, and this may always be true. It feeds a sense of superiority and false confidence that “they” are not on the bottom rung of society. Chant, repeat, feel better.

    I am very close to not giving a rat’s ass about people like Chris Needham. (A little West Virginia girl humor for y’all.) But I do enjoy this dialogue, and if it doesn’t change anyone outside of our state, I still believe it helps refine our knowledge and understanding of ourselves, and makes us stronger.

    As Jacque Bland quipped, “Game on.”

  2. Bob Moore said:

    Here is my best advice about NBC or any of the other “alphabet” news media…just turn them off. Use papers such as The Washington Post to start fires in the fireplace.

    I am NOT from WV…just wish I was. I own some property there and will one day retire. Anyone that doesn’t recognize WV as a wonderful place has either~never been there~or is just dumb. Jamaica has a new slogan and WV needs to develop one like it…”Once you go, you know.”

  3. Dixon Marshall said:

    I have acquired a photo of Mr. Needham by FAX (I’m in West Virginia, so of course, I have no Internet access), and I am currently pooping on the likeness of his face in my back yard. I just opened the long john flaps and pooped away.

    Let the outsiders have their ignorance. Those of us that live here enjoy our little piece of heaven.

  4. Buzzardbilly said:

    I’ve given this post a shout-out on my blog and hopefully more bloggers who’ve tackled this subject will let you know to add them to your list. Excellent essay!

  5. The Enlightened Redneck » Chris Needham Is A Bigot said:

    [...] A Better West Virginia ironically noted the best answer to a blogger bashing West Virginia as being too backward for the Internet: “Today, one of the best tools for challenging misconceptions is the Internet. Unlike the days in which people had little means of publicly defending their image, the slighted can now stand up virtually and educate others as to the realities of who they are.” (That’s the whole point of The Enlightened Redneck!) [...]

  6. Andrew Dasilva said:

    This is not a surprise. I was born in WV, and moved back 20 years later. Things aren’t as bad as me and my metropolitan friends used to joke about, but there are a lot of depressing realities that are hidden under the rug. It is easy to look away from them and deny that they exist, but they still do.

  7. Marsha Wells said:

    Let him think what he wants - people who believe this crap can just stay in their tiny cramped apartments in the big city.

  8. Troy Body said:

    Why do you care? If what he is saying is a lie, why does it matter? Had he said you had eyes made of coal would you respond this way or simply roll your eyes and keep moving forward?

    We are talking about some unknown guy writing for a local blog in a violent crime intense city where they used to close the schools on Monday because they couldn’t afford the light bill….or its Mayor snorted it all in crack in a hotel bathroom, - but yet these people can get to you. These people can ruffle the feathers of the Mountain State.

    What is truly at issue here? Did he say some things that ring true and cut to the quick? Are you embarrassed and regret living and investing there? Or do you have eyes made of coal? My point with the latter is that if it isn’t true, why the outrage?

    I live in New Orleans. I live in a city where people used to get mocked for the way they talked, and ate and partied. The great people of New Orleans laughed that all off and embraced their culture and now the world comes to us.

    I once read a book about the poor fishermen in Maine that had to feed their families lobster everyday. Lobster was considered low class food for low class people. The people of Maine embraced it…added butter and lemon and the rest is history.

    Look, W.Va., if you want respect from the rest of the world (and I don’t really know why you care about that) you must embrace your own culture first. You have to show your own pride first. Community pride does not come from around the globe and then into a community….it’s the other way around.

    Your response to some yahoo in a city where you have to take your transmission out of your car each night to keep it from being stolen, tells me you aren’t exactly being honest with yourselves.

    P.S. - Perhaps this Blog should be called “The Best of W.Va” rather than implying so much is wrong.

  9. Elizabeth Gaucher said:

    Troy, your comments are not to be ignored; they remind me of some of my first reactions to all of this brewhaha. I think there is no easy formula for when you ignore lies, and when you address them. On some level you have to go with your gut, and clearly a lot of people in WV had a gut-level feeling that these lies needed to be addressed.

    If I find out someone is saying negative or untrue things about me, I usually don’t worry about it UNLESS I do not have the opportunity to demonstrate reality and be understood on my own terms. In our state, we are struggling with how do we encourage more people who don’t know the truth about what quality of life is like here to find out on for themselves that this is an exciting and creative place of opportunity, especially for people with a spirit of adventure and self-direction.

    Until I feel more confident that the country at large is willing to give West Virginia a chance, I’m going to have to agree with the position that we need to fight to correct extremely erroneous impressions that discourage in-migration. And you are right, in all stereotypes there is a grain of truth. The difference in your examples (which, by the way, are hilarious, thank you!) is that most people know what the counter balance is — they know that yes, you have to take your transmission out in some neighborhoods, but also that there is a national heartbeat of culture and intelligence there too.

    We are nowhere near having a national awareness of the counterbalances to our outhouse image. It’s important to keep up the push to get other images out there, so it won’t be so easy for a “yahoo” in DC to spread lies.

  10. James Allen said:

    Chris Needle**** is from Yokel Alexandria, VA and He wants to throw stones at West Virginia’s People and History, that is Really Very Funny. Certain Parts of Virginia Have always tried hard to run down West Virginia People. I was Born in Virginia and Moved Purposely, they can keep it and STAY OVER ON THAT HALF. It has been My experience that Better People as a Whole Live In West Virginia Anyway.

    Great Article Above After We Get Past Chris Yokel Needle***** Vast Intelligent Views Before Hand.

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