Romanticizing the Land, Denigrating its People

Recently Lisa de Moraes, a Washington Post staff writer, reported that CBS is bringing back The Beverly Hillbillies, but this time the family members that supposedly will supply the laughs won't be played by Hollywood actors; they'll be real live families from the South.

She notes: "After spending decades trying to shed the Bubba image it contracted in the 1960s when its prime-time lineup included a slew of backcountry characters, CBS has decided to embrace once again its biggest hick hit of all. The network already has a crew of casting agents combing 'mountainous, rural areas' in Arkansas, West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky in search of a 'multi-generational family of five or more -- parents, children and grandparents -- who will be relocated for at least a year' to a mansion in Beverly Hills, said CBS spokesman Chris Ender.

"'That is not to say if we discover the perfect family from another area of the country we wouldn't consider them,' he added. 'We're looking for a family from a very rural area that hasn't been exposed to big-city life or luxuries of life in any way.'"

The family will be given money with which to buy expensive cars and designer suits, hire maids and personal assistants, and dine at hot West L.A. eateries.

The head of reality programming for CBS, Ghen Maynard, told the trade paper Variety, which broke word of the remake, that the network is looking for a family that's very different but "relatable" and whose members love one another.

In the late 1960s other popular shows played off the same Beverly Hillbillies theme -- Petticoat Junction and Green Acres -- and all three were still Top 20 programs when CBS dropped them in the early '70s. "That was about the time," de Moraes notes that, "the Nielsen company started providing the networks with information about viewer demographics. Turned out, people who watched these shows were mostly rural, mostly older and lacking much spending power. Advertisers became less interested in the shows."

Ender said CBS isn't worried that the new Beverly Hillbillies will suffer the same fate. "We believe this will hit a sweet spot of young adults with its reality base," he said, young viewers being the audience advertisers most want to reach.

Quoting Dub Cornett, who's among those developing CBS's Beverly Hillbillies reality remake, she continues "'We will accomplish the most if we cast it well with people who respect themselves but see the humor in themselves. We will end up with a piece that truly has, God forbid, social commentary, and maybe will enlighten, that it's not all barefoot hillbillies ... Most of America can only imagine what it's like to live in Beverly Hills and live in a multimillion-dollar mansion. We can share this advantage with them, rather than laugh at them."

So once again we will see the people who populate rural America portrayed as not just being backward in being "exposed to big-city life or luxuries of life in any way," but a suitable object of humor by the haves of the have nots. The fact that rural America and the people who live in our rural communities from family farmers in the heartland to those working in the hills and valleys of Appalachia are suffering at the hands of these very same haves plays little or no part in the minds of our media moguls.

As long as those other "sweet spot[s] of young adults with its reality base" are satisfied, namely with abundant amounts of food and energy, the plight of the men, women and children who toil to provide those necessities of life will be but a passing blur on the nightly news.

Even when the news media decides to venture into America's hinterlands we usually get the standard postcard shots of pastoral-beauty and the romanticism of living out in the countryside, while at the same time behind their backs we make sport of the people live in such surroundings and pay little or no heed to their basic human everyday needs.

There is something uniquely obscene about people growing and harvesting crops for our dining room tables and fast food restaurants who themselves have to purchase food stamps so they and their families can survive while at the same time nearly one-third of the food that their crops generates is being wasted.

Caught between public apathy and scorn and the machinations of corporate agribusiness, rural America is being economically, socially and environmentally pillaged. When one considers those characteristics by which corporate agribusiness has become identified and comparing them with the historical characteristics of the family farm/peasant system of agriculture we can see more clearly how corporate agribusiness has become the antithesis of family farm agriculture and how incompatible the two systems are in a democratically structured society.

Whereas family farming/peasant agriculture has traditionally sought to nurture and care for the land, corporate agribusiness, exclusive by nature, seeks to "mine" the land, solely interested in monetizing its natural wealth and thus measure efficiency by its profits, by pride in its "bottom line." Family farmers, meanwhile, see efficiency in terms of respecting, caring and contributing to the overall health and well-being of the land, the environment, the communities and the nations in which they live.

While corporate agribusiness stresses institutionalized organization, hierarchical decision making, volume, speed, standardization of the food supply and extracting as much production from the land as quickly and impersonally as possible, family farmers and peasants strive through order, labor, pride in the quality of their work, and a certain strength of character and sense of community to take from the land only what it is willing to give so as not to damage its dependability or diminish its sustainability.

By this deifying of "cost-benefit analysis" at the expense of the "common good," corporate agribusiness has also managed to annul the aforementioned positive dimensions of the family farm system and eliminate its economic and environmental advantages, particularly as they relate to building genuine communities.

As social anthropologists Patricia L. Allen and Carolyn E. Sachs point out, any system built upon a foundation of structural inequities "is ultimately unsustainable in the sense that it will result in increasing conflict and struggle along the lines of class, gender, and ethnicity." Corporate agribusiness has become just such a system

In the late summer of 1998, PBS viewers were given the opportunity to eavesdrop for six and one-half hours on the lives of Nebraska family farmers Juanita and Darrel Buschkoetter's marriage in The Farmer's Wife, a documentary produced for the network's Frontline series. Here was a story, stark in its reality, focusing not on mocking inane humor, but on the grim reality of being a farm family today faced on a daily basis with losing their farm and their future.

The questions raised in The Farmer's Wife, just as the questions raised in Edward R. Murrow's famous CBS-TV documentary Harvest of Shame, are issues that those who provide us with the news and events that help shape our nation and the world steadfastly refuse to confront for fear of antagonizing the increasingly small number of corporations that seek to control our lives.

Scott Chronister from Eitting, Germany got it exactly right, in a letter to the editor to the Washington Post after the de Moraes article, when he wrote:

"Does CBS think we believe that the show is intended to provide 'social commentary' and to 'enlighten' viewers? P.T. Barnum already answered that one. If CBS is really looking for a fish-out-of-water story, it should take a family of former Enron or WorldCom executives, strip them of their cash and other worldly goods, and plop them in the middle of Appalachia. Now that has the makings of good humor and good social commentary."

A.V. Krebs operates the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, PO Box 2201, Everett, WA 98203; email;

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