Geographic look at N.D. is old news
From 1958 to 1963, the popular television crime show "Naked City" would begin with "there are 8 million stories in the Naked City," and then proceed to show viewers one of those stories. No one really believed a single story was representative of...
From 1958 to 1963, the popular television crime show "Naked City" would begin with "there are 8 million stories in the Naked City," and then proceed to show viewers one of those stories. No one really believed a single story was representative of all of New York City.
So it is with the January issue of National Geographic magazine, which features "The Emptied Prairie," a cursory words-and-pictures portrait of the author's preconceived notion of rural North Dakota. Beautiful photographs and excellent descriptive writing make for a compelling, if woefully incomplete, image of rural North Dakota in 2008.
For what it was, the article was honest. But for what it left out, Geographic is responsible for misleading its millions of non-North Dakota readers with an inaccurate picture of the state. Of course, the author and photographer likely had no such intentions in mind when they set out to take a look at abandoned farmsteads, tiny settlements that never were more than tiny settlements and "emptied" vistas framed by lonely rural roads. Their focus was the empty places that certainly do exist.
The reaction to the article has been mixed: Yes, there has been change in rural North Dakota, but no, not all of that change is about an empty landscape. Critics of the article said that even in rural North Dakota - indeed, especially in rural North Dakota - agriculture, energy and good leadership in small cities and towns have changed the outlook for the better. The rural economy, and thus the outlook of rural North Dakotans, is as upbeat and hopeful as it's been in generations.
Unfortunately, the Geographic team found "empty" examples of towns that were marginal from the start and never - never - were destined to be viable places.
There was a time, not long ago, when the reaction to a story like the Geographic's would have been resignation and depressed agreement. No longer. The state is riding an unprecedented budget surplus, piled up because of a diversified economy that no longer is dependent on only one or two sectors. While population has shifted, the future of the state's second- and third-tier cities is brighter because of agriculture, energy, tourism and a proliferation of small manufacturing ventures in those places. As a result, North Dakotans reacted indignantly to the Geographic article because they know it's anything but representative of their state.
North Dakota might not have the "Naked City" 8 million stories to tell. But there are tens of thousands that reflect hope, progress and vitality. The Geographic team's story was nicely done, but it's old news.
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Geographic look at N.D. is old news 20080116