I recently viewed the new Edward R. Murrow DVD Collection,
and was reminded of what real journalism and quality television used to
Murrow, who began his career in Churchill's London as a war correspondent
with CBS radio, later adapted his hard hitting, extremely literate reporting
style to the new medium of television, and, in so doing, established a
template for how to produce and present news.
He assembled a team of journalists to work with him on his "See it
Now" series, then, later for his documentaries. These were not pretty
boy anchors, rather, they were competent correspondents who went on to
achieve great success on their own, including Murrow's young director,
Don Hewitt who eventually created a tribute to his boss, with the highly
decorated "60 Minutes".
Murrow's most famous "See it Now" episodes involved his coverage
and criticism of Senator Joe McCarthy's post war communist witch hunt.
the DVD collection also includes Murrow's most famous documentary, "Harvest
of Shame" (1960) which depicted the plight of migrant farm workers
Interestingly enough, the majority of migrants back then were poor whites
and blacks who, each year, worked their way northward from Florida to
New England to pick whatever crops might be available. Murrow made a reference
to the growing number of Mexicans who were entering the country for temporary
work, but they would not comprise the majority of day labor in this country
until more than a decade later. Living conditions were deplorable for
these gypsies who were lucky to clear a dollar a day after feeding their
This definitive American documentary wasn't without its flaws. For example,
every migrant interviewed had no less than five children, and some had
as many as fourteen. Were I Murrow, I would have been compelled to ask
the obvious question of these poverty stricken nomads. "If times
are so tough, and wages so scarce, why do you keep having babies?"
Murrow was engaged in a noble crusade, so his bias (or oversight) can
It was interesting to go back and watch "Harvest of Shame" at
a time when illegal immigrants are now flooding across our borders, and
driving down wages for American workers, many of whom are adjusting to
life without factory jobs that have since relocated to the countries from
which today's illegals hail. The irony is inescapable. Nevertheless, Murrow
helped effect reform for migrant workers, using television as a catalyst.
That's why perhaps the most disturbing thing about watching "Harvest
of Shame" is the dearth of such documentaries on TV today.
Yes, HBO does an excellent job with periodic sports documentaries, and
A&E and the History Channel do a passable job with safe topics and
celebrity bios. But, for the most part, neither network nor local television
offers us Murrow-like programs. That's because quality costs money.
And so, the shame of all this is that local television managers and network
executives have abandoned Murrow's mission, and squandered his legacy.
let's be optimistic. Perhaps this new DVD collection will catch fire with
the public, as well as with TV bean counters. Perhaps it will even inspire
a whole new direction in investigative journalism. Perhaps. But not likely.
today is about style over substance, and profit over public service. Until
that paradigm shifts, we might be forced to look for our hard hitting
journalism in a pack of 45 year old DVDs.
Longworth is a veteran talk show host, columnist, and lecturer, and
the author of TV Creators: Conversations With America's Top Producers
of Television Drama, volumes 1 & 2.