The words “Danny Schechter died March 19 of pancreatic cancer” are hollow. They do not capture Danny’s enormous contributions to media, nor explain why younger generations should know about the Bronx born “manic media maven,” as he described himself. They do not convey why countless of his peers honor his friendship and work. At the age of 72, Danny left a prolific legacy. For me, thinking about how to adequately encapsulate Danny in words is impossible. Where words fail, music often fills the gap. I think the best soundtrack to Danny as a person — at least how I understood him to be — is jazz legend Charles Mingus’ Haitian Fight Song.
The punchy extemporaneousness of this great song is consistent with what was Danny’s own seemingly free flowing improvisation during critical media analysis. Give Danny a headline, a source, a fact, and he would provide sharp and deep analysis, seemingly unprepared but hitting every critical note. He cleared ideological fog embedded in mainstream media, while also participating in and shining light on movements for a better world; from anti-apartheid South Africa to Occupy Wall Street. Danny was generous and energetic. Generously energetic with his time, his strategies for analysis, participation in projects attempting to shed light on what is happening in the world — with facts clearly dissected from harmful ideological packaging.
Like Mingus’ Haitian Fight Song, Danny played his life’s tune to the struggle against racism and for civil rights. He fought against apartheid, befriending Nelson Mandela, and ultimately producing six documentaries with and about Mandela. Danny also wrote the 2013 book “Madiba A-Z: The Many Faces of Nelson Mandela,” a culmination of Danny’s 40 year effort to better know the man behind the project of freeing South Africa from Apartheid. Journalist and political commentator Bill Moyers said that Danny’s story-telling is “unique, refreshing, and revealing” and was “grateful for Danny Schechter’s creative journalism.”
While working for ABC’s 20/20, Danny worked with Steven Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band to produce the 1985 Sun City album by Artists United Against Apartheid which included musicians such as Miles Davis, Bruce Springsteen, Run DMC, Pat Benatar, Bob Dylan, Jimmy Cliff, Lou Reed, Herbie Hancock, Ringo Starr, Keith Richards, Peter Gabriel, Joey Ramone, Afrika Bambaataa, George Clinton, Gil-Scott Heron and many others. The album raised money for anti-apartheid organizations and their work.
In January 2015, Danny published his latest book, a biography, “When South Africa Called, We Answered: How the Media and International Solidarity Helped Topple Apartheid.” The book’s forward, “Soldier of Solidarity,” explained:
“This is a book about a commitment that may seem to some more of an obsession. I am an American who has been connected to the fight for freedom in South Africa since the 1960’s. When the anti-apartheid struggle appealed for support, I was one of the many who answered, first as an activist, then a journalist. Like others, I marched, rallied, campaigned, boycotted, sat down and stood up. But, unlike most others, I went there, at first illegally, and then on countless trips to cover stories, make documentaries, and report on developments. I remained engaged.”
Writing in the Huffington Post in May 2014, Danny explained why he wrote the book. He reflected on Mandela’s funeral, highlighting that:
“Even as the globally televised event celebrated the history of South Africa’s greatest son and his ‘long walk to freedom,’ it also rewrote that history, leaving out the mass global solidarity movement responsible for generating pressure for sanctions and demands for Mandela’s and the people’s freedom.”
This is just one example of Danny’s attempt at holding media to account for failing to shed light on the thousands of ordinary people who fought with Mandela — both within South Africa, and outside.
Danny’s media analysis always put people first. “You really have to read from the bottom up, not the top down,” he explained to me in one of his many lessons on media analysis. He was pointing out that major media outlets often bury the most important information at the bottom of a story. But, he was also using this as a metaphor for critical media analysis, saying that; it is important to read the news from the perspective of those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder rather than from the point of view of those at the top. “You have to go into the meat of the story and try to separate the facts from the ideological packaging that those facts come in,” he once told me. Danny was a prolific “News Dissector,” a compelling media analyst and commentator.
In “A Work in Progress: Danny Schechter and the Journalism of Change — Chronicling a Media Life in the Trenches from the Sixties to 60,” Danny explained how he was given the last name rhyming cognomen “Dissector,” which made him the infamous “Danny Schechter: News Dissector.” While broadcasting on Boston’s WBCN radio in the ’70s:
“I became ‘The News Dissector’ when one of the deejays, who I was writing the news for, told me he couldn’t read what I had written, and I should read it myself. And then he had to go to the toilet, so I was thrown on the air, and he introduced me: ‘And now, ladies and gentlemen, the news inspector, the news digester, the news dissector.’ ‘News dissector,’ that sounded pretty unique and good, so I basically latched onto it, and I’m still known as ‘The News Dissector’ in journalism all around the world, and now write a blog under that name.” (from clip broadcast on Democracy Now!)
More than two decades later, the “News Dissector” appeared as faculty at the 2001 ZMedia Institute, then hosted by ZMagazine on Cape Code. That is where I first came across Danny. I did not know then that I would later handle his ZNet articles, become his friend, nor that we would collaborate on various projects up until a few months ago.
In 2011 Danny and I struck a personal connection over Murray’s Bagels, around the corner from his home and near the historic Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd St, Manhattan, New York. Danny suggested we meet at the bagel shop to discuss an idea I had for a media watch-dog project, NYT eXaminer (NYTX). The project hoped to hold The New York Times to account in its reporting on climate change, peoples’ rights, and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, Latin America, and beyond. I admired his work and wanted his support and ideas for the project.
Consistent with his generosity, Danny kindly offered to help and a few weeks later I was over at his place filming him flipping through The New York Times so that I could film an introduction to his NYTX video column. I struggled to find the right background music, until Haitian Fight Song popped into my head. I thought it was perfect for Danny then, and I still do. Danny was my first guest on NYT eXaminer, he provided content and support for the project even while traveling across the world.
Danny also participated in a December 2011 NYTX event “Un-spinning Occupy Wall Street: Mainstream Media & the 99%” at the old Brecht Forum in New York City. Our friendship evolved around our work. I provided him with informal technical support, and we talked about our projects, work and struggles. In December 2014 Danny provided me with quotes on the Sony Hack and North Korea for news articles I was producing for teleSUR English. As an indication of Danny’s prolific contribution to critical media analysis, and his generosity even while seriously unwell, between January 2015 and March 2015, Danny wrote 15 blogs for teleSUR English.
That there have been so many heart moving remembrances for Danny, from the margin to the mainstream — from The New York Times to CounterPunch — shows how widely his work was recognized. Danny’s death has left a deep crater in place of quick, amusing and effective media analysis. Many of Danny’s colleagues and peers have written remembrances stretching back decades into the 1960’s, particularly in relation to Danny’s participation in social moments, the many friendships formed through the cultural changes that were taking place at the time, his founding of major media projects, and inexhaustible and abundant production of documentaries, articles, blogs and books. My more recent contact with Danny conveyed so clearly his dedication and generosity to media projects (small, fledgling and large) that sought to shed light on what was happening in the world, and to highlighting the ways in which mainstream media was burying, concealing, and (at worst) obfuscating reality to protect those with economic and political power.
While referring to the Arab Spring one year before he died, Danny asked in the headline of an article, “Where Is the American Spring? (or Sunshine on a Cloudy Day).” He so wanted to contribute towards a movement that sought a new world; a more just and egalitarian world.
In a now widely quoted closing paragraph to that article, published on Common Dreams, Danny wrote “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, in hearts I don’t know, words or images can still stir souls to rise.”
Danny produced media that helped end apartheid and that inspired young people from the anti-corporate globalization to Occupy movements. Journalists, bloggers, media makers, people of all ages can draw from the indefatigable selflessness that Danny offered. I hope a new generation of media makers will be inspired by his work, particularly the ways in which he called out ideological obfuscations, and gave voice to movements for a better world so abundantly. Through his work, Danny did stir souls to rise. He certainly stirred mine. I hope that today’s media makers will seek to do the same. You will be missed Danny.
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