Media Beat, May 5, 1993
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon

Cesar Chavez Obits Bury Media Hypocrisy

In the two weeks since renowned labor leader Cesar Chavez died, we've accumulated over a dozen obituaries from major news outlets.

The obituaries are infuriating.

They aren't maddening because of inaccuracies. Indeed, the inspiring story is recounted in factual detail: How Chavez's grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico. How his parents built up a farm in Arizona but lost it during the Depression, and became migrant farm workers. How young Cesar never completed high school, but once recalled 65 elementary schools that he'd attended "for a day, a week or a few months."

As an adult, Chavez made history by successfully organizing largely immigrant, migratory farm workers -- among the country's most exploited employees-into a union. His tactics borrowed from Gandhi and Martin Luther King: fasting, long marches, boycotts. He was a fearless giant at 5 feet 6 inches tall, a union president whose $5,000 salary equalled that of a farm laborer, a nonviolent leader who bowed down to no one.

So why complain about news accounts that dramatically and accurately reflect this great American life? The issue is hypocrisy.

All the glowing words that poured forth after Chavez's death stand in stark contrast to the many years of under-coverage of the people Chavez gave his life for -- the workers in the fields and processing plants.

In the obits, Chavez was a "champion," a "legend," a "hero." But there is nothing heroic about news outlets that have routinely dodged the issue of exploited farm laborers.

In his obituary of Chavez, ABC anchor Peter Jennings referred to farm workers and "their pitiful wages and sometimes deplorable working conditions." Our computer search of ABC World News Tonight stories focusing on the deplorable conditions of U.S. farm workers turned up only one segment in the last 40 months.

CNN ran lengthy reports on the death of Cesar Chavez, referring to farm workers as the "most politically and socially disadvantaged." The network could have added media disadvantaged. Since Jan. 1,1990, CNN has aired only a half-dozen reports exploring the conditions of these disadvantaged; the 480-word Chavez obituary was longer than almost all of them.

The kind words about the departed hero may make reporters and TV anchors feel good, but they do nothing for the workers in the fields. What would do a lot for them is solid reporting.

It would help if media prominently, and regularly, reported that workers in the fields suffer more job-related illness than in any other industry. Several times more. And farm labor is getting more dangerous; each year, pesticide exposure affects about 300,000 workers. For most farm laborers, the low pay is accompanied by no health coverage or disability plans, no pay for sick days or overtime.

Reporting some history would also be helpful in showing the political roots of today's appalling conditions. Most Americans probably don't know that when Congress passed the landmark Wagner Act in the 1930s, sanctioning the right of workers to form unions and bargain collectively with employers, agribusiness interests lobbied successfully to exclude any protections for farm workers.

In California, the advent of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) in the 1960s, and passage of the state's Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975, significantly improved wages and conditions for farm workers.

But when union-ally Jerry Brown left the governor's office and was replaced by a friend of agribusiness, the state law -- which required "good faith" bargaining -- became a joke. Workers on hundreds of farms democratically elected the UFW to represent them, but employers simply refused to bargain- and faced absolutely no sanctions from the state.

This history is hardly debatable. It's also hardly reported. If mass media toughly scrutinized the corporations responsible for the plight of farm workers, they'd be targeting some of their biggest advertisers: produce companies, wineries, supermarket chains.

Our media culture worships celebrities, and likes to believe in David versus Goliath sagas. Since Goliath owns the big media, the death of Cesar Chavez is a perfect, and harmless, story. Journalists can show their kinship with the downtrodden and feel good about themselves as they tell the story of a real-life David, now deceased.

Not as easy for mass media to tell is why the conditions of farm workers in our country remain so abysmal. Such reporting might offend powerful interests. Goliaths would be exposed.

So when the charismatic leader of the farm workers dies, that's big news. But when his followers die due to pesticides, lousy health care and unsafe working conditions, that's not big news.

It's infuriating.

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