Farmworkers from El Paso, Texas, picking chilies in the fields of Hatch, New Mexico. Photo by Carlos Marentes/Border Agricultural Workers Project.
In 1960, Edward R. Murrow won widespread acclaim for “Harvest of Shame,” a searing CBS television documentary reporting on the hard lives of migrant farm workers. The setting was Immokalee, Florida, where Murrow filmed and interviewed migrants who were working long hours at backbreaking labor picking vegetables for less than poverty wages and living in unsanitary shacks. There were men, women and children deprived of the basic rights most American workers take for granted.
Ten years later, NBC’s Martin Carr revisited Murrow’s Immokalee location to produce “Migrant,” another widely admired TV documentary. Carr concluded that virtually nothing had changed for workers since Murrow’s exposé.
And in January 2001, Florida newspapers reported how farm workers from Immokalee and other farm communities had marched to the state capitol in Tallahassee to demand that Governor Jeb Bush and state lawmakers enact legislation giving them the right to earn “a living wage” and to organize. The governor had visited the fields to report that migrants lived in inadequate housing and earned less, after adjusting for inflation, than they had 50 years ago.
Over the years, the migrant story developed an eerie sense of recurrent déjà vu. Though the stories, as told by journalists, changed little from decade to decade, migrant farmers only received penetrating news coverage on those rare occasions when Walter Lippmann’s proverbial moving searchlight paused briefly to illuminate their difficult lives.
The migrant story raises questions about how journalists report about issues of poverty and race in American society. These two issues that have been intertwined since the civil rights movement of the 1960’s not only secured for blacks the right to vote and sit at integrated lunch counters but demanded remedies to economic inequality, the legacy of 300 years of discrimination. Too often, in my opinion, reporting about questions of social and economic justice has been trendy, superficial and sporadic—if not simply missing from the news agenda. When articles about race and poverty win journalism awards, it’s almost as if the revival of these stories for a new generation, along with their inherent shock value, is what brings them recognition.
America’s problems of race and poverty—from inner cities to Appalachia to rural farm fields—rarely are assigned a news priority that calls for sustained, penetrating coverage. At most news organizations, these problems only have received attention when advocates for minorities and the poor demonstrated forcefully enough to create crises that government and the public could not avoid. Throughout most of our nation’s history, these marginal groups have remained as invisible to journalists as to other Americans.
As a journalist reflecting on this history, I ask two questions: How can we do a better job covering these issues and exploring the impact poverty and race have on people’s lives? As a corollary, journalists might also wonder: Has the absence of sustained coverage in some way contributed to why so little has seemingly changed in the life of migrants and others in poor communities?
It would seem that many in journalism share a large conceit about the impact of our work. For example, when Murrow’s great documentary appeared, many journalists and citizens assumed naively that this powerful exposé surely would lead quickly to reform. Great journalism does sometimes lead to change, but seldom does real change come easily, and it almost never results from the episodic and fleeting attention journalists give to ingrained problems that are deeply rooted in the structures of American institutions.
Our feeling of self-satisfaction once we’ve done a story contributes to another all too common phenomena—the reflexive editorial rationale that “we’ve already covered that.” The operative news judgment too often is that once we’ve reported a story, we have no continuing obligation, on our own initiative, to follow up.
Trendiness also too often drives news judgments, especially on topics that usually begin with a low priority on the news agenda. As a reporter at The Washington Post and Des Moines Register and later as a magazine writer and author, I observed how prevailing political winds influence our judgments in reporting on civil rights and poverty. Cesar Chavez’s long effort to organize California’s grape pickers was a national news story in the 1960’s, a time of civil rights activism and President Johnson’s War on Poverty. By the 1970’s, however, as a political backlash against efforts to help the poor emerged, Chavez’s struggle lost its news appeal.
I recall the reasoning an editor at the Post used in rejecting my suggestion to cover Chavez at that time. He readily told me that he now thought about the migrant story less in terms of California’s grape pickers than as the favorite cause of knee-jerk “limousine liberals,” those hapless creatures so brilliantly and wickedly portrayed by Tom Wolfe as they munched on canapés at a lavish Long Island fundraiser for Chavez’s grape pickers.
When I left the Post to write a book with my wife about civil rights and welfare rights, it was “conservative chic” to be a tough-minded critic of the 1960’s and social causes. But it was not chic to cover the continuing story. The news media too uncritically accepted the popular assertion that the War on Poverty was a total failure. If, as many editors came to believe, stories about poor people’s lives were biased by sentimentality and too predictable in their telling, then the remedy should have been more thoughtful reporting and editing, not an abandonment of coverage. Instead, coverage was curtailed, and the migrant story, for example, never regained a place on the national news agenda.
How then, in this new century, should journalists strive for more effective reporting of what Gunnar Myrdal defined, midway through the 20th century, as “the American dilemma?” What Myrdal saw was the persistence of racism and poverty in stark contradiction to the professed values of the nation.
Better coverage might begin with a news vision that includes a commitment to ongoing reporting of the great issues in American life. Contrary to the contention of some news people, it does not involve either bias or advocacy journalism for editors to make critical judgments about what are continuing core issues in our national life and in our local communities. What our ethic requires is that we strive to give our news audiences a reliable view of the world.
In developing a long-term news agenda, race and poverty belong on a list that reflects the major problems that affect our communities and nation. A promising start would be for news organizations to identify a list of such core issues that would be covered over time, whether or not episodes or events—or political winds—drive them onto the front page. Of course, to make this work, editors and reporters would have to make time available regularly to discuss and decide on the manifestations of these issues as they are reflected in the complex reality of their communities. And to truly grasp this evolving reality, news organizations must recognize—and represent—the diversity of interests and viewpoints in the society.
In his book “News From Nowhere,” Edward Jay Epstein quotes broadcast executive Richard Salant, in defending CBS from charges of bias, as protesting that “Our reporters don’t cover stories from their point of view. They are presenting them from nobody’s point of view.” It is a convenient fiction, relieving us of responsibility, to suggest that news stories emerge immaculately and autonomously from some kind of machine, uncontaminated by any journalist’s own biases or beliefs or critical judgments about what is important. Our news judgments—on these issues and others—might be wiser and more responsible if we acknowledged and actually examined how our own value systems and interests influence decisions we make about what is news and about what our responsibilities are as professional journalists.
Fresh eyes are desperately needed to look anew at perennial stories such as race and poverty. Too much reporting on these issues still comes off as sentimental and stereotypical, reflecting perhaps our limited knowledge. In too many presentations, journalists end up portraying minorities and the poor as helpless victims rather than as autonomous human beings. Too often we simply assume the accuracy of prevailing stereotypes, rather than expending the necessary energy to probe more often and deeply into the story.
We need also to get beyond stories that only rediscover the problem. Our current reporting needs to be grounded in a historic context that informs the audience about what has changed and what hasn’t. The issues of race and poverty have not remained static. Many individual lives and communities are better off as a result of historic civil rights laws passed during the 1960’s, of Medicare and Medicaid, of scholarship aid for higher education, and of the much maligned War on Poverty. When journalists fail to comprehend and describe an issue’s historic context, we often present a static and uninteresting snapshot that neither reflects reality nor offers the reader a reason to become engaged in the story.
To provide such context requires journalists who report from the nation’s capital to acquire knowledge that overcomes the “Potomac River gap.” Washington journalists have a habit of reporting on changes in national laws and regulations without examining how laws or programs actually work in communities. And local reporters just as rarely incorporate into their stories a detailed knowledge of the intent of federal actions and programs. In recognition of this problem, several media efforts are now underway to help reporters at the state and local level know what is going on in other states and communities. Former TV news executive Ed Fouhy, in the Pew Center on the States research project, provides policy news from state capitols to journalists and others through Stateline.org, an online news service.
Important, too, is the need to fit national and local issues of race, poverty and work into larger institutional contexts. This requires that journalists become much more ambitious in understanding and explaining the basic functioning of important American institutions. The migrant farm worker system exists and resists change because it serves a vital role in America’s agricultural economy. Yet too few migrant stories examine how agribusiness works, explore the source of strength of the agribusiness political network, or examine what the cost of changing the system would be for American consumers and growers. Would a better deal for migrant workers make American growers noncompetitive with imports or price fruit and vegetables out of the reach of too many consumers? Would consumers and the nation be better off with lower trade barriers to foreign produce?
Now that changes in federal welfare law have curtailed the legal right to welfare, producing a significant decline in welfare rolls, the subject requires ongoing and deeper journalistic examination. The old system was deeply flawed, but only sustained probing will reveal what has happened to the women and their dependent children who have been forced off of welfare. Are the adults now employed more independent and better able to care for their families? Or have their problems simply been swept out of sight, only to reemerge later with even harsher consequences for the poor and the nation? Answering these questions requires a broad context, one that involves reporting about the availability and adequacy of jobs, training and education, as well as questions about family structure and race. During the last two years, The New York Times has demonstrated the reward to readers that comes from sustained efforts to examine the impact of this new welfare approach, as well as to explore beyond shallow stereotypes the state of race relations in the nation today.
Just as it’s naive to assume that exposure of human suffering alone will lead to change, it could be that if journalists work to broaden our understanding of why institutions function the way they do, constructive change will still not come. But at least journalists will better serve citizens by giving them a more reliable picture of the world they live in.
Nick Kotz, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Magazine Award, is working on his fifth book, a study of change in the 1960’s.