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‘Children of the Plains’ Was Little More Than ‘Poverty Porn’

Rob Schmidt
11/17/11

The 20/20 special about the Pine Ridge Reservation, "Children of the Plains" (watch the full episode here), has gotten both positive and negative reviews. The episode certainly shone a light on a neglected part of America. For that alone, it provided a valuable service.

But the critics were right that it was a maudlin mess. It was closer to a morning-show puff piece than a hard-hitting PBS documentary. Here are some of its problems:

The tone is set early as Diane Sawyer calls the Lakota “hidden” and “forgotten.” These terms may be accurate in some sense, but they’re strangely bland and neutral. It’s as if Americans wanted to help the Indians all along but couldn’t find them.

That isn’t the case, of course. In reality, words like “neglected,” “scorned” or “betrayed” would work just as well. But those would shift the blame from the Indians to the white man, and Sawyer doesn’t want that.

The episode’s first half is little but a grim litany of facts and images: unemployment, alcoholism, overcrowded trailers, crumbling floors and ceilings, and so on. There’s no explanation for why this is happening—merely a statement of its existence. Are the Lakota responsible for their own plight, or is someone—the government or big business—causing it? You won’t learn the answers here.

The stories are manipulative to the point of tears—literally. A boy cries because his mother is an alcoholic. A girl cries because she tried to commit suicide. The school principal, an old lady in a motorized chair, cries because her work is so difficult.

Even when the subjects don’t break down and cry, their stories are framed negatively. Another girl gets pregnant and thinks her future is ruined. A five-year-old’s father is killed in a drunk-driving accident.

It’s not that any of these stories are false or unrepresentative. But they seem chosen for the maximum heart-tugging effect. You’ll suffer with the children in the first half, and you’ll feel their joy as things improve in the second half.

There’s a term for this: “poverty porn.” As the Aid Thoughts website explains:

Poverty porn is typically associated with black, poverty-stricken Africans, but can be found elsewhere. The subjects are overwhelming children, with the material usually characterized by images or descriptions of suffering, malnourished or otherwise helpless persons.

Not only does the episode’s first half ignore the causes of poverty, it barely mentions the outside world. When it does, it uses the passive tense. Schools were forbidden to teach the Lakota language. Children were removed to boarding schools.

Well, who ordered these things done? Why did they happen? And what were the consequences? Again, you won’t learn the answers here.

Only in the second half does Sawyer mention America’s sins a couple times: broken treaties, slaughtered buffalo, stolen land, unhealthy commodity food. But by then it’s too little, too late. The “poverty porn” feeling predominates.

Sawyer presents two Lakota “talking heads,” and they offer some corrections to the narrative. But they’re young and polite, and Sawyer puts them on the defensive. Surely the federal government isn’t responsible for creating jobs on the rez? she asks the young man. Why do the Lakota cling to the reservation when they could leave? she asks the young woman.

Imagine all the sharp-tongued activists — people like Russell Means and Winona LaDuke — who could’ve demolished the show’s passive hand-wringing. Or the tribal leaders and elders who could’ve spoken more forcefully on the issues. Sawyer doesn’t give anyone with answers a voice; she seems to go out of her way to avoid them.

Similarly, where are all the people trying to make a difference? For every problem on the rez, there are scads of media reports, government hearings, tribal programs, charities and foundations, etc. People tackle problems such as suicide and domestic violence every day. An issue such as Whiteclay’s alcohol sales, which the show touches upon, has inspired protests, lawsuits and documentaries.

True, no one’s come up with a silver bullet to end these problems, but they’ve received a lot of attention. Even if the efforts haven’t succeeded yet, the show could’ve mentioned the attempts. You’d never know people are working on these problems from Children of the Plains.

The message is clear. Somehow the Lakota have become poor without anyone’s noticing it. Fortunately Diane Sawyer, our intrepid white reporter, has arrived to save the day. The children are suffering, but she brings a smile to their faces. With Diane on the scene, everything’s gonna be okay.

The show could’ve cut 10-15 minutes of the sad stuff and used the time to provide context instead. How did the poverty come about? What are people doing about it?

This approach might not have left viewers feeling good about themselves like the Oprah Show. But it would’ve given them a greater understanding of Indian country. That’s the goal of a news program, right?

Rob Schmidt is an editor for Pechanga.net. He writes about Native issues at his Newspaper Rock blog (newspaperrock.bluecorncomics.com).

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bintdeeb's picture
"Poverty pron" is so apropos! My favorite line is right at the beginning: "But tonight is not about history," Sawyer says. Really? Sawyer is apparently unaware that "Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it."
bintdeeb
nancee's picture
I was appalled watching this program when it originally aired. However, I 'm a white gal,and if so many Indians were pleased with the program -- as the original comments seemed to indicate -- who was I to disagree. To my mind, program portrayed the two worst sides of how whites deal with Indians in this country. The conservatives rebuke the communalism of Indian country and point to how a few individuals have made something of themselves -- hidden message, so why can't they all do that? While liberals want to continue seeing Indians as primitive, naive souls who could possibly succeed, but only with the help of good white people. Casinos and American Indian activists working to solve their own problems don't play into either scenario and are usual ignored, at best, or vilified by the mainstream media. l can't believe they even showed that patronizing laugh when the young man told Ms. Sawyer he wanted to become pregnant. She covered by saying it wasn't funny but "wonderful" . The only thing missing was the wink to all her white viewers.
nancee
notnek's picture
Now we know about South Dakota officials removing children, lining the pockets of politicians. With one representative clearly who's only interested is following lock step with right wing thought. Indians have to come out (stand up) and call attention to this gross miscarriage of the law and common decency. There seems to be no bounds to gain profits at Indian rights expense.
notnek
crenna's picture
Well said. During that whole program, I was yelling at the T.V., like you said "How did it get this way"? It is the white mans fault, right here in the good 'ol USA, starting from wayyy back when up until present day. IF the Lakota were not Native Americans but instead a band of African Americans-they would have new homes, new cars, free food, ETC. This whole thing makes me sick.
crenna
chuhamok's picture
Responding to your question, “That’s the goal of a news program, right?” Objective Observation. A basic requirement and defining characteristic of reporting. Criterion discipline is objective observation. Ideally, reporters like yourself base their conclusions on objective evidence, which they view without preconceived ideas or biases. Objective observation allows for third parties (readers) to verify the report. I am interested on interview process that examine how an interviewer’s impressions affect the audience and respondent.
chuhamok
carla's picture
Dear Mr. Schmidt, Who is to say what Ms Sawyers geneology is. Perhaps she does have a trace of native blood. And, maybe the focus was placed on children because, people do not pay attention to an adult laying on the side walk drunk and drugged, malnourshed, covered in their own vomit, with out a future, or someone to care about them; but, when it is a child, the hardened heart is moved to take an interest and then cry out for change. As for the giggle when Robert Looks Twice stated "he wanted to someday be President". Well right now in our country, being president is not what one would expect to hear from any child, no matter what their geneology is. Your observations are miopic.
carla
deadwoodcat's picture
I don't care what anyone says I am glad that Diane Sawyer did this show. I know some folks that watched who ended up donating to various organizations on Pine Ridge. Poverty Porn is a white mans words. I was glad to see the exposure of a life that many people who watch tv have no idea exists.
deadwoodcat
redwolf48's picture
I agree that it wasn't exactly a hard hitting piece of TV journalism, but the fact that it was on at all is a victory. Lakota, like many other tribes, have been, are, and will be scorned because they fought back even teaming with the Cheyenne for a most impressive battle victory. But they've paid a horrible price. Sand Hill and Wounded Knee were unnecessary white revenge on the helpless. Lakota had sacred Black Hills stolen from them in such an egregious theft that even the courts sided with Lakota, though only as far as awarding 'compensation.' Most of us are scorned and hated so anyone who comes along and puts a sympathetic piece on network TV deserves credit for bucking the tide of genocide. PBS has a narrower audience so this was as good as we can expect
redwolf48