Academic journal article Journalism History

Reconsidering Harvest of Shame: The Limitations of a Broadcast Journalism Landmark

Academic journal article Journalism History

Reconsidering Harvest of Shame: The Limitations of a Broadcast Journalism Landmark

Article excerpt

In the years since it first aired, Harvest of Shame has become one of the seminal markers of television journalism history.(1) CBS broadcast the documentary on Friday, November 25, 1960. Airing during prime time on the night after Thanksgiving, the one-hour program examined the desperate plight of migrant farm laborers in the United States. It showed the migrants as the hapless victims of grower greed and an indifferent public. The broadcast ended with Edward R. Murrow issuing a plea to U.S citizens to help enact legislation that would aid farm laborers--a plea which was later amplified in the press and which added fuel to the ongoing Congressional debate over farm labor. Yet, despite its notoriety and its seminal place in the history of broadcast journalism, Harvest of Shame failed to spur meaningful improvements in the living and working conditions of migrant agricultural laborers.(2)

At the time of the 1960 broadcast, the migrant issue had received little television coverage. Shortly after Harvest of Shame aired, Producer David Lowe stated that he wanted the expose to "shock" the nation's conscience.(3) Lowe and others responsible for the production apparently hoped that Harvest of Shame would galvanize public opinion and thereby encourage policy makers to help the migrants.(4) This expectation may have seemed more plausible in 1960 than it does today. Executive Producer Fred Friendly and Murrow had already seen their strongest expose documentaries of the 1950s--"See It Now's" Radulovich and McCarthy broadcasts--elicit sharp public response and decisive governmental action.(5) Since Friendly considered Harvest of Shame to be at least as editorially pointed as either of those earlier "See It Now" broadcasts, it stands to reason that he and his fellow documentarians also anticipated that Harvest of Shane could have an impact on public policy.(6) However, although the broadcast did induce a large outpouring of sympathy for the migrants, even its admirers acknowledge that Harvest of Shame had little influence on U.S. agricultural policy.(7)

Some of the producers' earliest production decisions may help explain the show's ineffectiveness. Television production techniques are often looked upon as mere formal or logistical considerations, having little to do with the eventual contents and themes of broadcast journalism. However, seemingly routine and innocuous decisions about the assignment of line producers and technical personnel, the types of interviews that are conducted, the reliance on "objective" shooting and editing styles, and the use of present-tense narration and recently shot footage can result in an emphasis on certain themes at the expense of others.

A number of the initial production decisions made by the people who worked on Harvest of Shame contributed to the framing of the farm labor problem as a timeless moral struggle between greedy growers and powerless agricultural laborers. In this way, the documentary presented the migrant worker issue as an essentially ahistorical phenomenon. While the producers' approach encouraged viewers to experience a strong sense of indignation at the migrants' plight, it also undermined the program's ability to examine the structural policies and technological developments that led to the post-World War II glut in agricultural labor.

This thematic limitation could be significant for two reasons. First, it is possible that the emphasis on emotional appeals, at the expense of historical understanding, reduced the program's potential to encourage meaningful changes in public policy. Second, because Harvest of Shame is so frequently acclaimed as one of the best efforts and achievements of television journalists, the program's critical successes may have circumscribed the types of production strategies and contents expected from subsequent television exposes.

This article relies on an examination of the documentary itself, interviews with production personnel, and secondary source accounts to describe some of the less apparent and seemingly innocuous aspects of the documentary's production. …

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