Recently The New York Times ran a story and podcast set in my hometown of Greeneville, Tennessee. I’ve been discussing it with friends and family and paying attention to the online discourse surrounding it in our community.
Some see it as a mirror reflecting an uncomfortable reality, others dismiss it as partisan, a few feel our town has been depicted unfairly. There seems to be a general agreement that we do not look good, and although opinions differ as to precisely why, the story has been universally met with strong emotional responses.
The article combines intense personal stories, vague statistical data, and maudlin photos for the ostensible purpose of providing some reasonable explanation as to why some people still aren’t getting the vaccine now that it has become widely available. But whose interests does this assessment really serve?
Although many locals do read the Times, we and other people living in Appalachia and rural places elsewhere in the country facing the same issues, are not the target audience. This type of content serves mostly as entertainment, reinforcing views that editors assume the majority of their readership already holds.
The story seems based on an extrapolation of cherry-picked statistical data. The author already had a narrative and came here to cast the characters. She paints the same tired picture of Appalachia that has fostered division for decades, erasing Black and Brown people and reinforcing stereotypes about backwoods hillbillies who are somehow both wholesome and reprehensible.
New York Times subscribers are relatively wealthy white Democrats who hold college degrees and live in New York and California. The Times is not fundamentally interested in fostering healthy dialogue within communities outside their main marketing demographic. The paper’s interest in Greeneville is, therefore, extractive.
This type of writing relies on empathy to push a message. It is a manipulation, and applied to this purpose it is damaging. It is an example of the national media’s longstanding practice of othering Appalachia, directing blame toward a population that is chronically, and right now, acutely, underserved in terms of healthcare.
Spotlighting one pocket of vaccine resistance within the US and characterizing it as uniquely complicated and somewhat mysterious is discouraging and makes the problem seem unsolvable. There is better regional coverage that is both accurate and geared toward encouraging positive change, work that The Times is apparently not doing.
The last photo shows an empty road, backlit for eerie dramatic effect, captioned “Early morning mist in Greeneville, Tenn. Whether people here can be persuaded to take the Covid vaccine is uncertain.” It romanticizes a serious problem while assigning blame to a specific group and absolving the general reader from any real sense of responsibility. That is not good journalism. This is not a mirror. It’s a polarizing lens focused primarily on presenting an escapist fantasy.
Rachel Bewley is a resident of Greene County, Tennessee.