Danny Schechter, 1942-2015
Danny Schechter, whose media criticism became a staple of Boston radio and who went on to champion human rights as an author, filmmaker and television producer, died March 15 in Manhattan. He was 72.
Schechter infused almost all his work—whether it was for alternative or mainstream media—with his advocacy of human rights. He was a producer of an award-winning public television series, “South Africa Now,” and of the ABC News magazine “20/20.”
His cherubic, if bewhiskered, countenance belied an indomitability that began with the civil rights movement, projected him into the front lines of the campaign against apartheid in South Africa and endeared him to a generation of counterculture radio listeners as “the media dissector.” He described himself as a “participatory journalist.”
“What distinguished Schechter,” John Nichols wrote in the Nation online, “was his merging of a stark and serious old-school I. F. Stone-style understanding of media power and manipulation with a wild and joyous Yippie-infused determination to rip it up and start again.” In a tribute on his Facebook page, Charlayne Hunter- Gault, a former public radio and television correspondent, wrote that Schechter had “used the media as Edward R. Murrow defined its mission: To teach, illuminate, and inspire.”
Daniel Isaac Schechter was born in Manhattan on June 27, 1942. Schechter grew up in the Bronx, the grandson of socialist immigrants, and graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School and Cornell University, interrupting his studies there to organize rent strikes in Harlem. As an organizer for the Northern Student Movement, he also marched for civil rights in Washington and in the South.
He received his master’s degree from the London School of Economics, where he became active in the antiapartheid movement.
In 1971, Schechter joined the Boston rock station WBCN-FM, where he found a following as “Danny Schechter, the News Dissector.” Noam Chomsky recalled the “enlightenment and insight and humor” of his broadcasts, which, Chomsky said, “literally educated a generation.” At the end of each broadcast, Schechter borrowed a phrase from Wes Nisker, a San Francisco broadcaster, and exhorted his listeners: “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.” He joined CNN in 1980, before moving to “20/20,” where his work won two Emmy Awards.
In 1988, he and Rory O’Connor founded Globalvision, a New York production company, which produced “Rights & Wrongs: Human Rights Television,” a 1990s series hosted by Hunter-Gault, and “South Africa Now,” a weekly public affairs program that won a George Polk Award in 1990. In a letter to the New York Times in 1991, Schechter defended his programs against complaints from some stations that they crossed the line into advocacy. “How many PBS stations may have decided not to air our programs because they don’t want the controversy generated by the self- styled media police?” he wrote. “Self-censorship is always the hardest to detect. The public television system needs to be more open to programming that challenges the conventional wisdom, that lets the voices of the world in.”
By his count, he wrote 17 books, and made more than 30 films, including 6 documentaries.
“I know all this is easy for me to say,” Schechter wrote a year ago on Common Dreams, a website for the progressive community. “All I seem to have these days is this keyboard to crank out more condemnations and calls to action, knowing full well, as I do it, that I don’t know what else to do. I am compelled to make media, compelled to do what I can, thinking modestly that perhaps somewhere, I don’t know, words or images can still stir souls to rise.”
Eds: We knew Danny from the Boston anti-war movement. Being in media, we kept in touch over the years. He wrote articles for Z and gave talks at Z Media Institute. We will miss his energy and humor.
– Lydia Sargent and Michael Albert