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February 1993


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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 25 Feb 1993 09:34:33 EST
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On the subject of Harvest of Shame, I did a research paper on the documentary
some years ago in Vance Kepley's Documentary film class at UW-Madison. What
I found was pretty eye-opening. The policy proposal which Murrow makes were
in fact those already being advanced by the Eisenhower administration at the
time and were being written into a bill which might have addressed some of those
 conditions. When the documentary came out, the American Farm Bureau, a powerful
 agribusiness lobby, launched a full-scale attack on HARVEST OF SHAME, which,
however regrettable its origins, includes some pretty solid evidence of
distortion, fabrication, and falsification in the film of the sort which would
make the recent GM controversy seem mild by comparison. I don't have the
paper in front of me, but one mild example: the famous sequence of the woman
who has to leave all of her children at home to work in the fields. The famous
pot of beans sequence. Turns out that, first, most of those children do not
belong to that mother and are not her responsability. They were recruited
from neighbors to add drama to the scene. Second, the woman is in fact married
and does not rely soully on her income to support the children. Third, the
woman's husband has a perminant job in a nearby town and therefore provides
a fairly substantial income. All of this goes directly contrary to the
impression Murrow sought to give to the scene. In any case, true or false,
the charges were substantial and for the most part, neither Murrow nor the
network made any serious attempt to refute any of them. Most of them, after
some pushing, were conceded. The opponents of the Eisenhower Administration
legislation, thus, evoked the film and the Bureau's report every time the
legislation was raised in committee, on the floor, etc. with the result that
the bill's proponents spent most of their time defending the documentary rather
than advancing the cause of the migrant workers. In the end, the legislation
was first gutted and then defeated. Murrow further retreats from support
of the documentary when he comes up as a Kennedy Administration appointee and
must face these same southern Senators again. The net result, I would argue,
is that HARVEST OF SHAME probably did more to hurt the cause of reforming
migrant labor than to help it. One of these days, I'll get around to revising
and publishing that essay, but I am glad to share the information in more
detail with anyone who wants to know more. I will have to dig it out of my
files, though.
Henry Jenkins