Having this blog site opens up a lot of opportunities for those of us who work on Anderson Cooper 360. It gives us the space and the time needed to take you behind the scenes and show you what happens before, during, and after we work on a story. And now is a good time for me to do just that.
On the day before the Kentucky presidential primary, we decided to do a story on poverty and politics. In travels around the country I have done since the primary and caucus season began, I have talked with many poor Americans who in high proportions, feel Washington hasn’t a clue about what they are going through. While many Americans feel people in abject poverty should just “get a job,” many of the poor truly want honest steady work, but for a variety of reasons, can’t get it. And now with four dollar a gallon gas, driving to find a job (particularly in wide-open rural areas) is prohibitively expensive. So with all that in mind, we decided to do a story on poverty and politics. We reported the story in Manchester, Kentucky, which is the county seat of Clay County, on the day before that state’s primary.
A day after our story aired, I received a letter from a Kentucky state senator. It wasn’t the warmest note I’ve ever received.
Senator Robert Stivers, who represents a district in the eastern part of the state, accused me of looking down on rural America. He added that “it is very popular in your rarified circles” to do just that. He also declared I went out of my way “to videotape (my) stereotype of Manchester residents.” He went on to say “Manchester has many new buildings, including a new courthouse. Several new and exciting projects are taking place in Clay County.”
Now, let me initially tell you that I hear where Mr. Stivers is coming from. This part of Kentucky is his home. He is proud of his home, and would like the rest of the nation and the world to see positive things about where he is from. In addition to the new buildings, there are some charming restaurants, beautiful mountain scenery, nice homes, and notably, very kind people. I talked to Senator Stivers on the phone after I received his letter and he told me about federal monies that are being spent on some important projects in Clay County. They include a new facility for a branch of Eastern Kentucky University, a special intervention program for at-risk youth in schools, and an innovative anti-drug abuse program. He also told me there are extensive infrastructure modifications taking place.
But what I told Senator Stivers on the phone, and what I tell all of you now, is that we did not come to Clay County on this particular visit to do a story about the courthouse, the buildings, and these projects. That could indeed be an inspirational story for another time; but on this story, we needed to concentrate on people who are suffering with poverty and how they feel about presidential politics and the presidency in general.
We came to Clay County for a specific and objective reason. According to U.S. census data, it is the poorest county in Kentucky when it comes to per capita income which is $9,716 a year. It is the second poorest county east of the Mississippi river. (Jefferson County, Mississippi is $7 a year poorer.) Almost 40 percent of the people in Clay County live under the poverty level. In his letter to me, Senator Stivers wrote that while many of the residents in Clay County face poverty, they do it with hard work and dignity. He then said, “it is obviously too much to expect that CNN would have found a story in that.”
Well, my feeling is that is the story we did. I interviewed people who were for the most part scared to go on camera, but decided to speak to talk to me precisely because their dignity is so important to them. I don’t know all the things about their pasts that have led these people to be in their predicaments. But I do know when a middle aged woman at a lunch counter tells me “we’re below poverty honey. I don’t know how much lower we can go,” it’s something that demands reporting in 21st century America.
When a young man tells me the only way things will change is “if a poor man gets in as president, and that’s never going to happen,” that is a sentiment we need to capture. And then, when I ask the mayor of Manchester, Kentucky about response from national politicians, and she tells me “it’s like nobody cares,” I know we’re on to a sad but frank portrayal of America’s poor.
I was curious what that mayor, Carmen Lewis, thought about our story after it aired. She was also made aware of the letter that Senator Stivers wrote to me and I was curious if she shared his sentiments after seeing our finished report. Instead though, she said she believed it showed the truth, and that she hopes some good comes of it.
Certainly, when we do stories on poverty in places like New York City or Los Angeles, people know there are lots of other wonderful parts of those cities. Because Manchester, Kentucky gets on television so rarely, there is understandably more sensitivity. But I think almost all of our viewers get it. This is a snapshot of a national problem.
Senator Stivers says I am in “rarified circles.” That is the only criticism I don’t take in stride. I’ve spent weeks in tents in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve slept in cars and RV’s in the flooded streets of New Orleans after Katrina. I don’t consider myself or the colleagues I am friends with part of any “rarified circle.” But nevertheless, I respect Senator Stivers’ opinion. After all, he obviously takes pride in his home. So Washington; take note. When you have 40 percent of people living in poverty; at the very least, something is not right.
Filed under: Gary Tuchman
Anderson Cooper goes beyond the headlines to tell stories from many points of view, so you can make up your own mind about the news. Tune in weeknights at 8 and 10 ET on CNN.
Questions or comments? Send an email
Want to know more? Go behind the scenes with