11/26/2010 09:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Truth and Propaganda

Fifty years ago on that Friday, November 25, 1960, the best-fed people in the world were still recovering from Thanksgiving. They weren't prepared for the feast of the mind on CBS at 9:30 that evening -- the opening music of Aaron Copeland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" followed by a man shouting "Over here! Seventy cents a day. We pay more and longest hours. Seventy cents."

It was a scene of black rural migrant workers. Edward R. Murrow's velvet baritone narrated:

This scene is not taking place in the Congo. It has nothing to do with Johannesburg or Capetown. It is not Nyasaland or Nigeria. This is Florida. These are citizens of the United States, 1960. This is a shape-up for migrant workers....this is the way the humans who harvest the food for the best-fed people in the world get hired. One farmer looked at this and said, 'We used to own slaves. Not we just rent them.'

The one-hour documentary Harvest of Shame was a CBS Reports special depicting poor white, black and Hispanic migrant workers who traveled as nomads along the Eastern seaboard from Florida to New York. It was The Grapes of Wrath meets Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother.

A reporter spoke to a mother of fourteen children who looked twice her given age. She earned a dollar picking beans for ten hours. Migrant school children were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up and some said "teacher" or "doctor." Their teacher told the realities. Despite their bright-eyed dreams, few would ever make it out of grade school. Murrow, the ever-present conscience of the people, reminded the viewer that the federal government spent over six million dollars protecting migrant wildlife, nearly twice the sum spent on educating America's migrant children.

And what should that Thanksgiving weekend viewer think of these people who toil so hard, for so little, with so many mouths to feed? A farmer tells a reporter: "I guess they got a little gypsy in their blood. They just like it. Lot of 'em wouldn't do anything else. Lot of 'em don't know anything different. They don't have a worry in the world. They're happier than we are. Today they eat. Tomorrow they don't worry about. They're the happiest race of people on Earth."

As migrants are seen bouncing like sticks in the open-air trucks, Murrow reports:

Produce en route to the tables of America by trailer is refrigerated to prevent bruising. Cattle carried to market, by federal regulation, must be watered, fed and rested for five hours every twenty-eight hours. People -- men, women, and children -- are carried to the fields of the north in journeys as long as four days and three nights. They often ride ten hours without stopping for food or facilities.

The anger and passion of the CBS reporter concludes with this: "The people you have seen have the strength to harvest your fruit and vegetables. They do not have the strength to influence legislation. Maybe we do. Good night, and good luck."

A few months later the journalist turned propagandist. Edward R. Murrow said goodbye to his CBS colleagues and left a commercial network where he was making over $200,000 for a government job paying $22,750. John F. Kennedy appointed him director of the United States Information Agency, whose mandate was "telling America's story to the world." Just as CBS sold BBC the television rights to "Harvest of Shame," the USIA director discovered that Radio Moscow was using the transcript to remind the world how America treats its workers. Murrow's truth telling in 1960 had become Soviet propaganda in 1961. To make matters worse for the new Washington insider, Florida Democratic Senator Spessard Holland had taken to the Senate floor to denounce the film as a domestic propaganda piece full of factual errors and hyperbole. Feeling the pressure, Murrow made a fateful call to his old war friend Hugh Carlton Greene, director general of the BBC, and asked if a substitute program were possible. It wasn't.

When news broke about Murrow's call to the BBC, a British reporter explained that this is what happens "to a poacher turned gamekeeper." The ACLU expressed shock and one newspaper editorial said simply, "Say it ain't so, Ed."

Murrow was besieged with questions about his inexplicable action. At a meet-the-director USIA staff meeting attended by a thousand of his employees, a member of the Pakistani Service with Voice of America asked about his BBC call. Murrow replied: "How, in view of the fact that there have been two editorials do I view the program, 'Harvest of Shame?' I view it, as I did. It was a program produced for domestic consumption. As was suggested in one of the editorials to which you referred, my telephone call was both foolish and futile and I did not become aware of which hat I was wearing. This may well be an accurate summary. I hope that in spite of this I shall still have a place to put the hat." The USIA staff burst into laughter and applause.

Despite failing health, Murrow kept that place for his hat for nearly three years. The new hat he was wearing as a truth-telling propagandist had its limits. He knew that no bad American propaganda could ever substitute for good American behavior at home and abroad. It's a lesson that still applies today.

Nancy Snow, a professor of communications at Cal State Fullerton, is author of the forthcoming Truth is the Best Propaganda: Edward R. Murrow in the Kennedy Years.