What does the former fear-mongering, red-baiting Republican US senator from Wisconsin Joseph R. McCarthy and the "enemy within" US agriculture, the American Farm Bureau Federation, have in common?
Aside from the fact that the former sought to use anti-communism as a political platform to further his own career and the latter exploited it in an effort to preserve corporate agribusiness's chokehold on the American farmer, they both sought to discredit and gag one of our nation's truly great journalists -- Edward R. Murrow.
The McCarthy-Murrow story has drawn nationwide attention recently with the release of the prize-winning, critically acclaimed film Good Night, and Good Luck.
What most American don't realize, however, is that it was only a few short years after McCarthy had attacked Murrow on national television, questioning his loyalty and integrity, that the Farm Bureau launched a similar barrage of invective against the CBS reporter for his legendary documentary "Harvest of Shame."
It was the early 1960s that the public's awareness of the plight of farm laborers not only in California, but throughout the US, was fueled by the increasing attention the media was devoting to the subject. Newspaper reports and incisive radio reports such as those by Edward P. Morgan on the continuing struggles of migrant workers were becoming more frequently heard throughout the nation.
But, it was on the night after Thanksgiving 1960 that Morrow, standing in a Florida field, tieless and in shirt sleeves, introduced to a national TV audience the shocking story of America's "Harvest of Shame."
"These are the forgotten people, the underprotected; the undereducated; the underclothed; the underfed ... This is Belle Glade, Florida. This is a shape-up for migrant workers. One farmer looked at this and said, 'We used to own our slaves, now we just rent them.'"
Conceived by Fred W. Friendly, produced by David Lowe and filmed by Marty Barnett, this landmark documentary evoked immediate nationwide attention and outrage. In her brilliant biography, Murrow: His Life and Times, A.M. Sperber recalls:
"It was clear-cut advocacy journalism and Murrow's skillful narration, ranging from understated irony to flaming anger, carried along Lowe and Barnett's portrait gallery of pickers, farmers, lobbyists, missionaries, and politicians, from the introductory voice-over juxtaposed against the early-morning 'shape-up' for the hired help ('This ... has nothing to do with Johannesburg or Capetown ... This is Florida ... These are citizens of the United States') to the closing appeal for action in the muckraking tradition of Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens."
Some of the program's critics wondered why Murrow, for his part, was so invariably pro-union? "Because I hoed corn in a blazing sun," he once answered such an accusation. Yet, despite the praiseworthy attention the program received, it was, as Ms. Sperber tells us, effectively Murrow's last hurrah:
"the final round of Times editorials, the praises and damnation in the press and Congress, the anger of the interest groups, the squirming by the sponsors (two executives dispatched to Florida had virtually apologized), as well as the public calls to action that would probably fizzle."
Even before the program aired, however, Murrow and "Harvest of Shame" was being denounced. As Sandy Berger, in his exposé of the Farm Bureau (AFBF) in the book Dollar Harvest, recounts:
"The attack on the program was led by the American Farm Bureau Federation. The AFBF board of directors passed a widely circulated resolution blasting the broadcast as 'highly colored propaganda.' The AFBF issued a critique of the program, the commentator, the producer and the network and supplied it to several Congressmen and Senators for use on Capitol Hill. The essence of the critique was that the show had been a total distortion of the 'real' migrant who, the Bureau claimed, was actually doing quite well."
The latter point emphasized by the then-current AFBF president Charles Shuman, who was interviewed on the program. "I think that most social workers will agree that it's better for a man to be employed, even if his capacity is such as to limit his income. And we take the position that it's far batter to have thousands of these folks who are practically unemployable earning some money, doing some productive work, for at least a few days in the year."
Even after the broadcast of "Harvest of Shame," the attacks continued by agribusiness upon Murrow as was evidenced when he left CBS-TV and was nominated by President John F. Kennedy to serve as the new director of US Information Agency (USIA). While the majority of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee concurred in the nomination, Florida Democrat Spessard Holland of Florida, who had close ties to the state's citrus industry and was particularly enraged by the program, was threatening to oppose the nomination unless Murrow blocked the showing of the program on the BBC.
Although the BBC eventually would air the program, Murrow himself opposed its showing, but for entirely different reasons. As Sperber notes Murrow himself had been "jolted by the sale to England of the program -- a muckraking effort , as he conceived it, to move Americans to action, not for merchandising abroad to turn a buck, a view he would retain long after the incident was past."
In the immediate years following the CBS-TV report, additional efforts to document the continuing saga of farm workers continued. One such effort was Truman Moore's The Slaves We Rent, an explosive report not only devoted to the living, working and health conditions of the over two million men, women and children who annually harvested the nation's crops, but also a book which contained a damning overview of the system that created and continues to this day to tolerate such sub-human conditions.
But, as Murrow himself often reminded others, it was television that could only hold the mirror, the idea was to hold it up until something happened: a seven-day-a-week job, defending the Republic and pointing up the warts.
It is worth recalling that when Murrow leveled his attack on Joseph McCarthy in 1954 he ended his program by noting that the junior senator of Wisconsin had "caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad and given considerable comfort to our enemies" and then in words that could well be applied several years later to his "Harvest of Shame" detractors, he added: "And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn't create this situation of fear, he merely exploited it and rather successfully.
"Cassius was right. 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.'
"Good night, and good luck."
A.V. Krebs publishes the online newsletter, The Agribusiness Examiner, email email@example.com. He is author of The Corporate Reapers: The Book of Agribusiness.