Spotlighting Immigration, With No Fuss

Tom Brokaw, left, does some legwork for his documentary, which airs tonight.
Tom Brokaw, left, does some legwork for his documentary, which airs tonight. (Nbc)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Can it be? Is it possible? A one-hour documentary in prime time -- and on NBC, of all networks? Yes, unless fate fickly intervenes, "Tom Brokaw Reports," a solid and absorbing report on the immigration crisis as it affects one microcosmic American town, will air tonight at 8 (on Channel 4).

This is relatively valuable airtime that could have gone to a dunce-driven game show or a brain-draining tango contest. Instead, NBC is playing Santa and giving the hour over to something of actual value.

Of course there are those pesky mitigating circumstances: The week after Christmas is traditionally one of TV's least-watched of the year, so NBC has little to lose by sacrificing an hour that Nielsen probably would award to the other networks anyway. Also, the documentary was shot in a neck of the woods where Brokaw has a huge ranch and would likely have been visiting regardless.

But as Murray Slaughter once said on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," after an uncharacteristically noble, though minor, gesture by Ted Baxter: "When a donkey flies, you don't criticize him for not staying up that long."

So although this edition of "Tom Brokaw Reports" is not getting a big push from NBC -- as of yesterday, it wasn't even described on the network's Web site (despite a continuing NBC project on immigration) -- at least it's there, and represents a conscientious effort to deal with a monumentally vexing issue. Most of it concentrates on the Roaring Fork Valley in Colorado, a link between those rich-folk and ski-bum playpens of Vail and Aspen, where, as in countless other American cities, a relatively sudden inundation by Hispanics has caused controversy and consternation.

Brokaw notes the "passionate debate" engendered by "the waves of illegal immigrants, the undocumented workers who are pouring across the border from Mexico, Central and South America." Undocumented or not, many are extremely hard workers, indeed, or so local businessmen say. "These people work their butts off," marvels a construction company boss. He says they eagerly accept jobs that "Americans don't want," even at a fairly respectable $14 an hour or more.

It's considered "unskilled labor," and though that's really a misnomer in many cases, young people who could formerly be counted on to fill these jobs don't want them anymore. They want money and status. The economy is "booming" as new buildings go up, and illegals are "thriving" because of all the employment available, Brokaw says, and yet the population explosion has an unhappy side familiar in many an American town: 18 people crammed into a four-bedroom home, for instance, or basements that are wall-to-wall with mattresses on the floor.

Meanwhile, area schools now have student populations that are 80 percent Hispanic, with local property owners paying for them through heavy taxes.

In some cities, the "debate" has become an ugly battle -- jingoistic groups with names like Domestic Workers United marching around with banners that say bluntly, and crudely, "Go back to Mexico where you belong." It's an old, old story in the history of this immigrant nation: The last to arrive, from wherever, want The Golden Door closed behind them.

Brokaw interviews Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), a hard-liner demanding stricter controls on immigration and more "assimilation" by those already here. How far does he expect them to go? Learning English would seem a reasonable request, but extremists begrudge Hispanics the preservation of culture and traditions precious to them -- as precious as St. Patrick's Day parades to the Irish or Oktoberfest to Germans. President Bush, who likes to call himself a "compassionate person," certainly doesn't sound compassionate in an excerpt from a surly speech on immigration that he gave earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Brokaw notes, 300 of the American soldiers who have died in Bush's "war on terror" in Iraq were of Hispanic origin.

The version of the program submitted for preview was not quite complete, but it did include Brokaw's assessment that "this latest massive wave of immigration may now be irreversible." That sounds like a safe bet. Absent is any discussion or description of conditions in Mexico -- it's obvious why immigrants want to come here, but less clear why they're so anxious to leave there -- but within its limitations, the program compellingly addresses the big problem and many an attendant predicament.

As good as Brokaw's hour is, it doesn't represent nearly as impressive an undertaking as a recent full-length documentary on another network -- "North Korea: Inside the Shadows," Diane Sawyer's impressive, eye-opening visit to a (nuclear) nation about which Americans know maddeningly little. Though Sawyer and her crew spent a good deal of their time being shooed away from this site and that by intransigent officials, Sawyer did come home with plenty of utterly fascinating material.

One can't help wondering how things might have been different if Sawyer, rather than Katie Couric, had been the first woman to be solo anchor of a network evening newscast. It may be pointless wondering, but it's still hard to resist.

What the Brokaw and Sawyer documentaries have in common on the negative side is a longstanding bugaboo of broadcast journalism: a reluctance to rely on the visual, even though they're working in a visual medium, and a tendency to flood the soundtrack with too much talk. Considering the scarcity of serious documentaries in network prime time, however, it does seem churlish to complain.

When a donkey flies -- well, you know. The best course may be to give it a cheer and hope for another flight in ye olde foreseeable future.

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