I sat down in front of the television set wanting to be impressed by "Children of the Fields," an NBC documentary on child migrant workers airing tonight. Honest I did.
On Thanksgiving Day, 1960, CBS aired "Harvest of Shame," a documentary on migrant workers produced by Fred Friendly and reported by Edward R. Murrow. In its understanding of the complex issues involved and willingness to confront the powers-that-be in seeking answers, the report defined network television news as social conscience and set a tone that carried into the exemplary civil rights reporting by CBS and NBC in the 1960s.
In the current climate of wall-to-wall newsmagazines specializing celebrity, scandal and the superficial, I hoped to find at least an ember, if not a spark, of the network-news-as-social-conscience vision in "Children of the Fields." That's the way NBC was promoting it.
Boy, was I disappointed.
The report focuses on an 11-year-old boy, James Flores, and his family. It picks them up last May in their cement-block home in Texas' Rio Grande valley and follows them north as they look for work picking cucumbers and blueberries in Michigan and Ohio.
Here's the setup by correspondent Dennis Murphy:
As pictures of a supermarket produce section are shown, Murphy's voice says, "It's an everyday bounty we take for granted -- plump tomatoes in December, citrus all the year-round, supermarket fruit and produce so appealing and shiny, you can't see the shadows of the tiny hands that may have picked them, can't see the 11-year-old who gathered those blueberries that will taste great on your cornflakes. Does it make your pickle more sour to know that it may have been picked by 11-year-old James Flores, a little guy?"
So it starts out trying to make us feel guilty for enjoying produce, because Flores might have picked it, and he's a "little guy."
I wouldn't mind the guilt if Murphy could then make a coherent and convincing case that there is a good probability that a child picked the fruit. But all he has is pictures and interviews with members of two families. He claims that, if you "look closely" in any field in the country, you will find children working, but he never delivers any facts to give a sense of how widespread the practice really is. As a result, I never know whether James Flores is the exception or the rule. Based on what Murphy managed to come up with in five months, I would say Flores is the exception.
Worse yet is Murphy's inability to grasp cultural differences and larger social issues. It is most apparent in his desperate attempts to identify a villain for us. He wants it to be James' father, Pablo, a 49-year-old migrant worker, who speaks no English.
When a teacher says the obvious -- that it would be better if James were in school instead of picking fruit -- Murphy tells us such talk "falls on deaf ears" with the father. But that's not what the father says in Spanish when Murphy interviews him. Mr. Flores says that he thinks he has something to teach his son in the fields, a reasonable perspective if Murphy tried to see it from inside the father's culture instead of his rigid, uninformed, judgmental, middle-class superiority. To Murphy, the father is Pablo, not Mr. Flores.
The absolute worst moments, though, are when Murphy tries to get the "little guy" to condemn his father. Sitting on a bench with James, he says, "James, there are people who would give your dad a finger-wagging lecture, saying: 'You shouldn't let that young boy out there work so hard. He shouldn't be working at all.' What would you tell them?"
Murphy wags his finger when he says this and speaks in a stern voice, seemingly oblivious to how having a white, adult, male authority figure wagging his finger in the face of an 11-year-old Hispanic boy who lives in a Spanish-speaking household might affect the answer.
Despite the theatrics and the way the question is loaded, James says simply, "I have to help him [his father]."
Later, Murphy will try to blame the farmer, but that doesn't work either. Anyone who knows two facts about agriculture today could have told Murphy that. If he wants to see hard times and victims, he should invest six hours in watching David Sutherland's PBS documentary, "The Farmer's Wife."
I left the piece knowing nothing new or useful about the issue of children and agricultural labor. I did, though, come to one realization that I think is worth noting: Network news has lost the moral authority it once held.
That loss is not the result of such acts as "Dateline" rigging a pickup truck to explode in trying to make a case against GM. It's the result of correspondents like Murphy wagging fingers in children's faces instead of convincing us by delivering the journalistic goods of sound fact and coherent explanation.
'Children of the Fields'
When: 8 to 9 tonight
Where: NBC (WBAL, Channel 11)
Pub Date: 12/04/98