Misperceptions have consequences

Keynote speech by Dee Davis, president, Center for Rural Strategies, "Rural America, Community Issues" conference, Knight Center, University of Maryland, June 12, 2005

Tonight I am going to speak to you about journalism as I understand it, about rural perception and rural policy and where there is work to be done. I am quite aware that you were selected to be part of this group because of the exemplary work you have done with your own publications and broadcasts and I certainly appreciate the chance to have this exchange.

My journalistic credentials are quite modest. I grew up in Hazard, Kentucky where my daddy read me the funny papers in The (Louisville) Courier-Journal every Sunday. Through the years I moved from the funnies to "Ask Andy," to the sports section, and in time to the news, which at its most memorable meant exposing corrupt local officials, rapacious mining practices, and the stifling poverty in the Appalachian mountains around our home.

At age 16 I got my first letter published in the Louisville paper. The thing about growing up in a small town is that people whom I had no idea even knew my name would come up to me and tell me how proud they were – that a young person from our town could write a letter that would get in the Courier-Journal. Then they would each politely point out that they disagreed with what I had said, but they were very proud that I could say it.

At 17, I got my own humor column in the Hazard High School newspaper. It was called the Bulldog’s Bark and it was my first work with an editor, Agnes Kirby. She was the senior English teacher best known for walking around the school saying, “Alas, alas.” It was her job to read my columns to make sure I didn’t sneak through any cuss words or overly conspicuous double entendre. I would watch her read it, to see which ones she would catch, and not one time all year did she crack a smile, though occasionally she would look up and say, “this is funny.” So at least I have sensed that affection from an editor that many of you have experienced.

I skipped journalism at the University of Kentucky, but there was a course called rural government. I had no interest in the subject, but was convinced by my pals to take it, that it was an easy ‘A’ and everybody loved the professor, an avuncular stroke victim who called everyone "Mister" or "Miss" and spent a third of every class calling the roll. He began his first lesson by defining rural government as inferior government served by an inferior press. I found that to be biased and unhelpful. I not only objected in class, I complained to the dean of arts and sciences. The dean said he agreed, but he couldn’t understand why a serious student would take the class in the first place, that most students signed up for that class so they could get an easy ‘A’. At that point, I found myself going on at length about how important the study of rural policy was to my life and my future. This, I understand, is Karma.

I left the University of Kentucky to start a job as assistant editor of Mountain Review, a quarterly magazine with a press run of 1,500 and a subscription rate of $5 a year. I invite you to do the math.
A t age 25 my fortune turned and I went to work for the Courier-Journal -- as a paper boy. Though I was both dependable and punctual, my employment ended abruptly the week of our nation’s bicentennial when a comrade and I decided to celebrate the Fourth by dressing in commando gear and liberating all the lawn jockeys along my paper route. We filled the back of a Buick wagon with nearly a ton of freed statuary before the Hazard police strongly suggested we take them back to where their owners, my customers, were waiting to have a word with us. They say a paper route builds character.

My real journalistic education came in the years I was married to the granddaughter of Mark and Willie Snow Ethridge. Mark was then the retired editor of The Courier-Journal and of Newsday after that. He had been one of the Southern editors who had crusaded for modernization and for civil rights in the South in the face of rough opposition from every sector, especially schools and churches. He had served on the Ford Foundation board and the U.N. Commission on Palestine, and retired to a rural tract near Pittsboro, North Carolina.

Willie Snow, Mark's wife, was the author of 16 books and a delightful raconteur who often recounted their adventures together in the newspaper business, and was in some demand to make speeches all around the country. I remember her telling the story of having to go off to make a speech in Wichita. She said she spent the whole week before saying that she could not believe that there even was such a place as Wichita. And how could there be anybody there who wanted to hear her? She said she had no earthly idea why she had agreed to do it. But the morning came, and she dutifully climbed on an early plane and flew an indirect route to the Wichita airport where a delegation from the women’s club met her in time to whisk her off to her luncheon speech. Willie said that as they drove along she went on gushing about how lovely the town was and how nice it was to get to come to Wichita and to meet each of them. She started seeing these quizzical looks, and finally one woman said, “Miz Ethridge, we so loved your speech here last year, we just couldn’t wait to hear what you had to say in this year’s speech.” Willie said, that she thought “this year’s speech? I only had the one.”

By the time I met Mark Ethridge, he was in his late 70s with some health concerns, and the doctor had limited him to only two drinks a day -- a restriction he faithfully observed by purchasing a great yellow plastic flower vase that he loaded with vodka and grapefruit once in the afternoon and again before supper.
And on holidays and family vacations I spent all the time that I could steal sitting beside him, keeping pace with conventional stem ware, and urgently asking him all that I could think of about the state and the South and the people he had met: the '37 flood when the paper shut down, integrating the schools, Happy Chandler, Harry Truman, Alben Barkley, FDR, the coal strikes and John L. Lewis, Ed Prichard stuffing the ballot boxes in Bourbon County, the Binghams, the Guggenheims, the Hodding Carters, Huey Long, the Virginia Byrds, Margaret Mitchell, Sherwood Anderson, John Steinbeck. It made me feel that there was something great about newspapers, how they connected us and what they connected us to: stories, language, common understanding. The things I had studied in school like the struggles for voting rights and decent wages he had witnessed, perhaps even influenced.

And here you can plainly see that I came to over romanticize journalism, and journalists and the language they spoke -- the things they could make happen. For the next 20 years I made my way mostly by working with others to produce television documentaries about the coal fields where I grew up. In that process you move from idea to finished product in three years if you’re lucky. But on the front lines of every tough fight in Appalachia, from strip mining to official corruption, there was some reporter out there getting the story and taking a commensurate amount of abuse for it. Once in a while they got beat up.

One morning back in the '80s the judge in my home county was so incensed about a Courier-Journal expose' of his malfeasance that he confronted the paperboy on the county line and relieved him of his inventory and destroyed them so no one would read the story. The county was outraged. People get upset when they don’t get their paper. Trust me. Next day The Courier-Journal brought more copies the same and escorted the paper boy on his drops. A paper route builds character.

But the problem with romanticizing journalism is that there are also the disappointments that follow. Issues not covered, blown stories, the budgetary priorities of the papers. It’s not the despair that gets you, it’s having the hope.

Two years ago the Courier-Journal, now owned by Gannett, accomplished what no corrupt county official or outlaw strip miner ever pulled off. It stopped delivering the papers to East Kentucky -- let the paperboys go and pulled the routes back to its primary market area. It was a sound business decision and understandable. And it is part of an industry-wide trend that is manifest in a system where fewer and fewer staffers put together what are still highly profitable papers for fewer and fewer readers.

This is the way Albert Scardino explained the system to me when he was covering the media beat at The New York Times. He said that the real insiders would tell each other that you have to be brain dead if you can’t make money running a newspaper these days. He said here’s how it happens, an editor goes to ask for another reporter on his city desk or a regional bureau and is told sorry, we just don’t have that in the budget. But if you want something for the business page, we can talk.

Now Scardino is the executive editor for The Guardian in Britain, and he refers to those same insiders as “corporate press barons who have turned a once-honorable profession into a 17 percent return on equity.”

These trends present a particular set of problems for rural America in a conventional newspaper economy. Rural is where the market ends. The twenty per cent of Americans outside the metropolitan areas are more costly to reach. And they have less purchasing power. But even though they represent a less valuable demographic, they still could use real journalists looking into the issues that matter.

At The Center Rural Strategies, our business is campaigns. Sometimes that means building public awareness and sometimes that means picking fights. But we got into this business because we saw things in rural America were bad and getting worse. Moreover it seemed like nobody was paying attention. And we wanted to do something about it.

Here is the lay of the land we were seeing:
Of the 200 poorest counties in the United States, 195 are rural.
The rural poverty rate is 21 percent higher than the rest of the country.
More than one out of every five rural children lives in poverty.
Rural children are 50 percent more likely than urban kids to lack health insurance.
Eighth-graders in rural America are twice as likely to use amphetamines, and are 83 percent likelier to use crack cocaine than eighth-graders in urban centers.
The adult suicide rate in rural areas is 20 percent higher than the rate among urban adults.
The death rate in Iraq for American soldiers from the least populated counties is twice that of the nation's most populated counties.

And not only was that information below the national radar, those public and private systems set up to address conditions of poverty and community dysfunction were often absent when it came to dealing with rural problems. For example per capita federal investment in community development is twice as much in metropolitan areas. And of the $30 billion in charitable grants private U.S. foundations make each year, only $100 million go into rural community investment, less than half a per cent.

So to some of us who found the situation untenable, the question became what do you do? You can’t complain to the dean on this one.

We began our work with a couple of simple notions. The first is that there is strength in numbers -- that the more isolated and divided rural people are on issues affecting them, the less power they have to make change. And conversely as rural practitioners find each other, make allies beyond their own sectors, and identify solutions, there’s more chance to get something done. When we talked to folks working in rural places like coastal Maine, the Upper Midwest, Mississippi Delta, the Sacramento Valley, and a lot of what we heard was that they were feeling alone out there. If there were problems in the community or with the local economy, they faulted themselves for not doing enough, not the elected officials, not national policy, not the stars. And mostly they felt when the media did show up, they got it wrong.

The second notion that we organized around is that policy follows perception. If we were going to get better policy for rural America, change the status quo, then we are going to address how rural America and its issues are perceived. Here’s an example.

First, the overwhelming view in this country is that rural people make their living on the farm. The image of the venerable family farm is pervasive. But farm reality is very different. Fewer than 2 percent of rural Americans now earn their primary living on the farm. Nationally there are just 600,000 farmers earning $40,000 a year or more. To put that number in perspective, there are more than three times that many people who file on their income taxes as artists. But because so many of us commonly hold this common perception, the country can find it acceptable, even necessary, to subsidize agribusiness, what we assume is family farming, by more than twenty billion dollars a year. Believe me, the Arts Endowment gets less.

The reality is that most farmers don’t even participate in those subsidy programs, and of those that do, 8 percent get 60 percent of the take. It is easy to assume, even to expect that farm subsidies make a real difference for poor rural communities. It becomes our de facto rural policy. But the reality is that other than propping up land prices in the farm belt, those subsidies are a very inefficient way to assist struggling rural communities. And whatever this system of subsidized commodity production is designed to do for the balance of trade, it is not happening. The U.S. has become a net food importer.

So back to the business of bringing people together and reframing rural perceptions, at Rural Strategies we have undertaken some specific campaigns. A couple of the more successful ones, I will mention here.
(The unsuccessful ones, I plan on talking about next year, in Wichita.)

When CBS announced plans to make "The Real Beverly Hillbillies," a reality show that would take a low-income, uneducated rural family and place them in a Beverly Hills mansion for amusement, we took exception. We ran ads saying so in major papers across the country, and we put together broadly diverse coalitions to stop the show. This effort brought together many strange bedfellows: three dozen Republican members of Congress and the leadership of 10 of the country’s largest trade unions; Paul Weyrich, the founder of the Heritage Foundation, and Michael Moore; Zell Miller and whoever the opposite of him is.
And it got thousands of regular folks from around the country to register their protest and make some stand in support of what is rural. In a way a campaign against bad television is like pissing in the ocean, but in another way it’s empowering to take a side in a big fight and feel that you made a difference.

And one of our great discoveries in running the campaign was that rural America was far larger than the 55 million people who reside there. The actuality is that the cities and suburbs are full of people who have left the countryside to find work or opportunity, and they identify themselves as being rural. In seeing that the internal study at The New York Times suggested more rural coverage, it made me wonder if this was a response to those readers who feel connected to a rural heritage.

Another campaign we just took part in was confronting the administration and the banking regulators over their plan to exempt all but the largest banks from Community Reinvestment Act obligations. That law compels banks to lend money back into the poor and moderate-income communities that they serve. This was a more complex campaign than rallying against reality television. And nobody gave us a shot, but we started with good seasoned partners, like the Congressional Black Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus, NAACP, LaRaza, and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation. We ran ads that asked: "Will the president’s promise of an ownership society include rural America?" We asked: "Why reverse legislation that had brought over a trillion dollars of private investment into needy communities in cities and towns?"

One widely held perception of rural America is that it is redneck, all-white and intolerant. And that’s neither accurate nor helpful. As my pal Gurney Norman says, when did John Boy Walton become Timothy McVeigh? Or maybe the more up-to-the-minute question is, when did Jessica Lynch become Lyndie England? The reality is that rural America is only 8 percent less diverse racially than the country as a whole. And what we have seen from surveys is that urban people tend to think of rural people as intolerant, and rural people tend to think of urban people as intolerant. And they may both have a point. But it is also true that the problems of inner cities and the problems in rural towns ranging from disinvestment to substance abuse are not that different, and there very well may be remedies that serve them both.

And in this campaign with these diverse partners, e-mail by e-mail, letter by letter, we brought in enough petitioners to overwhelm those the banks ginned up in support of their own regulatory relief. And in the end, together, we were able to eek out a reversal from the regulators, FDIC and the Office of Thrift Supervision, on rural investment.

Here is what I am trying to say. There are problems in rural America. There are also some solutions. How we set about to solve these problems makes a real difference for those who live in the countryside and for those who don’t.

And the press has a critical role to play. Not as advocates. No one who romanticizes journalism as much as I would want to change your job description. But we need to cover rural issues better. Misperceptions have consequences. We need to explain rural better. We need to show how it is connected to a bigger world. We need to talk about solutions from time to time. And we need more folks like you to show up and get some shit on their shoes.

And when they do, there are going to be some tough rural issues to deal with, like the political segregation going on in this country, or the burgeoning clericalism in rural community life, or the true prospects of revitalizing our communities when the public coffers are empty and the real price of war has shifted back to the communities whose volunteers fought it. And when those stories come out it’s going to be uncomfortable. Readers will cringe. Some of you may even get beat up. That would be great. I would love that. It builds character. And it might just mean that these issues matter.

Thank you for indulging me.


Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues

University of Kentucky
School of Journalism and Telecommunications

122 Grehan Building, Lexington, KY 40506-0042

Phone: (859) 257-3744, Fax: (859) 323-9879

Al Cross, Institute director , al.cross@uky.edu

Last Updated: June 13, 2005