For 30 minutes tonight television mercifully dips below the cloud layer--ignoring such ephemeral vaporous billows as who-leaked-what to the Reagan campaign--spots the planet Earth below, locates the real United States of America, and zooms in on the city of Gadsden, Ala., where the pronouncements of bureaucrats about how rousingly the economy is recovering aren't quite enough to send hungry and harried people cheering into the streets.
In "Union Hall, Gadsden, Ala.," this week's edition of "Our Times with Bill Moyers" at 8:30 on Channel 9, Moyers demonstrates again there is a lot more to reporting on economic distress than numbers and charts and the hollow table-thumpings of Washington windbags. Depression has a face. It has several faces, and many of them are seen in a troubling, penetrating program that Moyers says tells "the story of a generation laid off in America."
Gadsden is the home of a Goodyear rubber plant and a Republic Steel mill, and both have laid off so many workers that the unemployment rate there approaches 25 percent. "The country is going to the pits," laments a 24-year-old man so broke that he and his wife have had to place their children in a foster home from time to time. "The American dream is just floating right out the window," he says.
Another unemployed man says, "It don't pay to have dreams any more." The CBS News camera turns these people into eloquent spokesmen for the summarily dispossessed.
Fingers are pointed nowhere--not even at the Reagan administration, for all its apparent insensitivity to the problems of the poor, because the forces at work in Gadsden, a convenient microcosm, are deeper, more inscrutable. The fact is, Moyers learns, no matter how the economy improves, nor how merry stockholders may become, many of the unemployed in Gadsden never will be rehired, because during the layoffs the dread New Technology has infiltrated the factories where they once worked. Fewer human beings will be required to run these factories now, and those laid off have not been retrained to handle the new equipment.
Thus these workers make up "a generation that faces obsolescence and fears it," Moyers says. "It's the prospect of losing the future that haunts workers like these. A permanently shrinking industrial base is a strange and frightening specter. Not even rough pride and native optimism can sustain a people without the skills or training to ride with change. Bad luck they can handle; it's not being needed that confounds."
Moyers and the camera are there when the three children sent off to foster care get a chance to return temporarily at least to their real home. The man is employed now (conspicuously, Moyers neglects to say at what) but receiving only the minimum wage. Meanwhile, a long line of the needy stretches out on a Gadsden street during a depressing shower; the people are waiting for rations of free butter and cheese, the federal government's pitiful notion of relief, and a former rubber worker tells how he earned the nickname "Slash": by slicing the tires on 10 foreign cars and leaving notes on the windshields urging the owners to "buy American."
Crime goes up as hopelessness rises, two local cops tell Moyers, and at a union-hall bull session, steel workers complain that American workers must compete with foreign industries that foreign governments subsidize. One gets the sense of a system in critical need of fine-tuning but getting instead only short-term first aid from Washington.
The program ends with a criminally poignant scene. A 51-year-old man, laid off by Goodyear just after investing all his savings in a farm for his wife and five children, learns that after 18 months without work he is to be rehired. Unfortunately, the plant he's to work at is 300 miles away. The last images on the screen are of the family's agonized parting. The man tells Moyers, "It tears me up, but I just don't see no other choice."
In a sense, this program is a sequel to "People Like Us," the memorable Bill Moyers documentary of 1982 that was denounced by Reagan administration officials when it aired (indeed, before it aired). Instead of addressing the problems recounted in the program, the plights of victims of cuts in social services, transparent attempts were made to discredit the examples cited. The program went on to win a slew of vindicating awards, including a Dupont-Columbia broadcast journalism award, a Writers Guild award, and another from the National Education Association.
"Gadsden," which was produced by Catherine Olian and executive-produced by Andrew Lack, also continues a theme established by two NBC White Papers that dealt with the problem of lagging American productivity: "If Japan Can . . . Why Can't We?" in 1980 and "America Works When America Works" in 1981 (perhaps Washington ought to be as concerned about this crisis as are the makers of TV documentaries). America isn't working in Gadsden; the diligent inquiry of Moyers and the laments for lost dreams by those interviewed summon a middle-class nightmare lived in cold daylight.
In Gadsden, and elsewhere, some people seem to feel they have been told to forget the promises America once made them. This report documents and imparts the panicked despair that is bound to set in when men and women realize they have been, in effect, written off. "Our Times" is covering the real stories of our times.