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.
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:
- Girl of Words: So, Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One
- Buzzardbilly: NBC Washington Bashes WV
- Esse Diem: Meeting Needs, Sustaining Shadows
- WV Fur and Root: Chris Needham Needs a Pair
- Honeybee: NBC Washington, You Should Be Ashamed of Yourselves
- Multi-Tasking Momma: Outraged