January's National Geographic features a desolate portrait of rural North Dakota. "This empty house is just one bone in a giant skeleton of abandoned human desire," writes Charles Bowden, his prose keen as winter wind. There's no doubt that people are leaving the state, as we've reported; North Dakota is losing population through both natural attrition and out migration. But Bowden's essay, illustrated with Eugene Richards's photographs of skinny horses and broken windows, raised the hackles of Bismark editor John Irby.
"This package was depressing and distorted and not a complete picture of the state," Irby wrote. He criticized the magazine for not "balancing the scale a bit" by mentioning the "booming economy, the 'good' problem of more jobs than workers, the high quality of life overall, outstanding educational institutions and advancements…."
Bowden's "ghost story," chock full of suicides, sagging stairs, and badger carcasses, does seem to have carried him away. But the problem with his report isn't imbalance (no story can offer "a complete picture" of any state). It's that capturing imagery of desolation is a whole lot easier than A) understanding how it takes hold or B) explaining what people across North Dakota are trying to do about it.
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