School is back and I haven’t posted in a while so I thought I would post the writing assignment I had to do during our first class. I’m currently in a public affairs and journalism class that focuses on investigative journalism. We watched Edward R. Murrow’s “Harvest of Shame” and had one hour to write 2-3 pages about the documentary and themes throughout Murrow’s life that came through in the film. Here is what I wrote.
“Harvest of Shame,” a one-hour documentary news program on the plight of migrant workers in America, exposed the horrific working conditions farm workers endured and their struggle to survive and raise a family. Edward R. Murrow used all of the strengths of the medium of television to the fullest extent—showing vivid and alarming pictures of a world few people had seen—just as he had with radio during World War II. For journalism, “Harvest of Shame” created a new, compelling, in-depth, and powerful genre. For the migrant workers, “Harvest of Shame” gave voice to the powerless and created legislative change. As Upton Sinclair changed the meat packing industry at the turn of the century with “The Jungle,” Murrow used journalism to confront the American public with the truth of how food ended up on the table.
In “Harvest of Shame,” Murrow woke people from the slumber of their comfortable lives. It was the manifestation of the overarching theme of his 1958 address to the Radio and Television News Directors Association. There he said, “For surely we shall pay for using this most powerful instrument of communication to insulate the citizenry from the hard and demanding realities which must be faced if we are to survive.”
The strength of Murrow’s journalism is the belief that any medium could be a “powerful instrument of communication.” Throughout his career, he seemed to study the medium thoroughly enough to understand its strengths and weaknesses in telling a story and communicating with the people. In “Harvest of Shame,” the long, lingering shots of the faces of the migrant workers humanized people that much of America had likely never seen. It showed children ravaged by malnutrition and poverty. And it exposed the industry that profited off of the backs of these workers.
Murrow led the program by proclaiming that he was about to tell a story about “forgotten people.” It tugged at heart strings and would make any person with a heart feel for the migrant workers who had to endure those conditions. But if Murrow simply exposed those conditions, told their story, and made people feel bad for them, he would be an advocate, not a journalist. He would not be performing a public service, but advocacy on behalf of the workers.
The depth of his reporting—a theme throughout his life that still guides journalism today—is what made “Harvest of Shame” a brilliant piece of journalism and public service. All of the lingering shots of the faces of migrant workers were matched with the raw numbers behind their abuse and mistreatment: traveling 1,500 to 2,000 miles to find work; making $1 for a 10-hour day of work while a crew leader made $14,000 per year; working at the age of eight. Those statistics don’t lie.
Murrow even adhered to the rules he followed with CBS during the McCarthy days half a decade before—offering voice to both sides of the issue, albeit not equal time. He went beyond the raw numbers and the compassionate human element to the story and told every possible angle of the story. He answered the essential questions that need to be answered by a good journalist. And he unraveled the story in progression that made it powerful, thought-provoking, alarming, and entertaining.
He introduced the viewer to an issue and a people they have never seen before, explained how they ended up where they were, exposed who was responsible for their plight, and why they were subjecting them to a life with little hope. And then he explained how things could change, what laws exist to protect these people, what regulations could be enacted to help them, and how they are finding ways—unionization—of empowering themselves.
In one hour, Murrow used television to tell the story of not just one migrant worker, or even thousands of migrant workers, but the lives of thousands of migrant workers, their families, and future generations in their families. He made it clear with “Harvest of Shame,” that journalists could no longer, “Insulate the citizenry from the hard and demanding realities which must be faced if we are to survive.”