By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 17, 2010; C01
"Children of the Harvest" is, arguably, the third generation of the documentary that has been called the greatest in television history: Edward R. Murrow and Fred W. Friendly's "Harvest of Shame," the unforgettable shocker about migrant workers that aired just after Thanksgiving in 1960 and upheld the sterling reputation of "CBS Reports," the pre-"60 Minutes" magazine from CBS News.
In 1998, NBC News reopened the case of the migrant, paid pitifully low wages and given no job security or benefits for picking fruits and vegetables destined for more fortunate citizens in the Land of Plenty. Although hardly as hard-hitting as the Murrow work, the documentary made the unhappy case that, for migrants, little of substance had changed.
"America Now: Children of the Harvest," Sunday night's edition of "Dateline NBC," is one more step away from the Murrow template in terms of impact and resourcefulness, but it still represents months of conscientious investigation into the plight of migrants today. As the title more than suggests, this edition takes particular poignant notice of the children, aimless and blameless, who travel from farm to farm with parents and siblings in search of work and a subsistence less harrowing than what Murrow found but still appalling in a country that, recession or not, is one of the world's wealthiest.
It's the recession that gives this latest look at the migrants' lot a news "hook"; if middle-class people are suffering mightily in a wretched and punishing economy, asks reporter Dennis Murphy, what effects is it having on those in perpetual dire straits? As with so many occupations, the nature of work in the fields has been affected by technology -- in this case, more effective pesticides and even a genetically modified sugar beet plant, both of which take away migrant workers' work.
In the earnest, glowing faces of the children who work alongside their parents on the ranches and farms of the Midwest, one sees both hope and despair. Like kids of every social stratum, they dream of the future no matter how miserable the present. Cameras follow the Cruz family of Texas through a particularly barren season, the summer of 2009 -- "the worst year yet," according to Ricardo Cruz, family patriarch.
Beyond the crippling blows dealt by weather and the economy, the Cruz family encounters unexpected catastrophes. A runaway wheel that suddenly detaches from the family truck and rolls off may sound like trivial misfortune, but it means lost time and money for the Cruzes, neither of which they can spare.
Toughing it out is Ulysses, known by the nickname Uly, who works in the fields seemingly without complaint and attends special classes for migrants' kids when he's not needed for manual labor. "It breaks a mother's heart," Uly's mom says, to see her kids toiling away in the sun or playing on a mountain of manure, and it also breaks the law. Uly has been on the job since the age of 6, even though it's illegal to do such work under the age of 12.
Late in the hour, we see Uly celebrating his 11th birthday. But his parents can't attend the modest party; they have to work.
The "unfair irony" of this, notes Murphy, is that even though a 12-year-old can legally pick blueberries all day in the dust, dirt and heat, he or she is still considered too young to stock packages of blueberries on store shelves in an air-conditioned supermarket. Murphy has grim statistics to impart: Children working in the fields with their migrant families die at four times the rate of those in any other industry. Murrow would be aghast; so, probably, would Charles Dickens.
For executive producer David Corvo, primary photographers and producers Nick Capote and Rayner Ramirez, and all those who worked on "Children of the Harvest," the program represents the kind of worthy accomplishment that can't be measured in the cold numbers of Nielsen. One can't help wondering if, 10 or 12 years from now, yet another news team will tackle the same subject -- and come up with painfully, shamefully similar results.
Dateline NBC --
Children of the Harvest
(one hour) airs Sunday
at 7 p.m. on NBC.