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Diane Sawyer examines poverty in Appalachia

February 11, 2009|Matea Gold

NEW YORK — Friday's "20/20" finds Diane Sawyer in starkly different environs than the cheerily lighted Times Square studio she occupies each morning as co-host of "Good Morning America."

In her latest ABC prime-time special, which examines poverty in Appalachia, Sawyer is scrubbed free of the glamour of morning television. Donning blue jeans, her normally coiffed hair pulled back in a ponytail, the anchor visits the deepest recesses of the mountainous region: the hillside trailer homes, the weathered front porches, the dank tunnels of a coal mine.

For Sawyer, it is not unfamiliar turf. She was born in Glasgow, Ky., and her family's ties to Appalachia stretch back decades.

"You don't have to go many generations back before we were up there fighting our way through those passes and trying to make our way down the mountain like everybody else," said Sawyer, who covered the region as a young Louisville television reporter in the late 1960s. "I'm always so moved by the bravery and the vitality of these essential American fighters. And now they've got a battle that they aren't winning."

"A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains" is the latest in a series of prime-time specials about poverty Sawyer has done in the last several years, including a 2007 piece that profiled the lives of children in Camden, N.J.

"It gets me up in the morning," she said of the documentaries, sitting in her cozy corner office at ABC on a recent afternoon, a flock of gilded Emmys perched on her desk. She jumped up to show a reporter the grinning school photo of one of the boys from the Camden special pinned to the wall, along with two colorful pieces of artwork he made for her.

Sawyer said she has not tired yet of "GMA," even after a decade of rising before dawn. But to do the morning program, she said, she needs an outlet for more substantial fare.

"This is what I think of as my life's work," she said. "I just feel hope when I do them, because we can do something about this. I can't do anything about government stimulus for banks' toxic assets -- even if I understood it, I couldn't do anything about it. But this I can do something about."

And it's not something the network would begrudge Sawyer, who remains one of ABC's most bankable stars. Since "Primetime," the news magazine she has co-anchored for 20 years, no longer has a regular time slot, Sawyer's recent specials have aired on "20/20," the longtime home of Barbara Walters, who had Sawyer on "The View" on Monday to promote her latest piece.

The impetus for "A Hidden America" came from Sawyer's personal ties to Appalachia, she said, and a sense that the region was forgotten.

"I think that urban poverty, while often crushing and inestimable, doesn't have the isolation," she said.

Friday's special shows how a lack of transportation deepens the effects of depravation: one of the women in the piece, Angel, trudges eight miles down the mountain every day to reach her GED class.

Sawyer's producing team worked on the project for two years, traveling more than 14,000 miles in the process. The anchor herself made one "very intense" trip to the region. She interviewed children like 11-year-old Erica, who desperately wants her mother to kick her drug habit. When Sawyer asks her why she believes her mother keeps using, the young girl replies world-wearily: "Pain. Misery." Equally compelling are the stories of Shawn Grim, an 18-year-old football phenom who lives in his truck to escape the dysfunction at home, and Courtney, 12, whose family often runs out of food.

Sawyer admits she doesn't know if viewers have an appetite for such difficult material.

"We don't ask ourselves that," she said. "Although I would argue to people watching that seeing these kids fight is a pretty good booster shot for anything going on in your life. But we're not doing these for numbers and ratings. We're doing these because we want to stay in the center of our purpose."

The somber tenor of "A Hidden America" is a dramatic departure from "GMA," which goes "from troops in Afghanistan to Valentine's presents with breathtaking velocity," Sawyer noted with a laugh.

Since coming close to catching up with top-rated "Today" in 2005, "GMA" has fallen back, averaging a million fewer viewers this season than its NBC rival. Sawyer says the gap is not surprising, considering the program's on-air team has been almost completely remade in the last three years.

Sawyer, the only one who has remained constant, was actually only supposed to be on the show temporarily. She and Charles Gibson agreed to help right the program in 1999 after the disastrous pairing of Lisa McRee and Kevin Newman. Gibson moved on to "World News" in 2006, but Sawyer is still helming "GMA," now with co-host Robin Roberts, without any firm time commitment.

"It's an ongoing conversation, which is how I like it," she said. "And no one has to feel it's an obligation."

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