'New Dissector, Democracy Projector': A Poet’s Tribute to Danny Schechter
What I’ll always remember most about Danny Schechter, besides his friendship, was his passionate commitment to democratic principles—in every field from politics and economics to journalism and culture—and his amazing energy for brainstorming creative ideas.
I met Danny in 1988, when I was working with a group of Rutgers University students to organize a national conference whose goal was to try to start a new SDS-type, mass-based, democratically structured, multi-issue national student activist group. The project’s main advisor was the late, great activist Abbie Hoffman, an old friend of Danny’s. It was Abbie who had suggested that our Rutgers group invite Danny to be a key panelist at the conference. Throughout the years since that conference, I saw Danny dozens or maybe hundreds of times at political and cultural events, most recently at a number of Occupy Wall Street rallies, and we kept in touch often by emails and occasional restaurant meals.
Well-known journalists have documented Danny’s incredible influence on progressive media through the years, beginning with his years as a Boston radio DJ during the Vietnam era, critiquing the war and other events of the day using the poetic nickname, “Danny Schechter, the News Dissector.” It was not surprising that Danny had a penchant for poetic phrasing. His mother, Ruth, had been a well-published poet with about 10 books out, and Danny used to enjoy sending me samples of his mother’s poems through the years that he knew I would appreciate.
In all of his work, he combined an artistic and strategic sensibility toward the purpose of deepening democracy, both at home and abroad. The weekly news show that he produced from apartheid South Africa, “South Africa Now,” shone a brilliant spotlight on that country’s extreme injustice, including its overtly racist social policies and its explicit media censorship. Those weekly shows, broadcasting news not seen anywhere else in the U.S., usually ended with a culture segment, highlighting some of the best music and poetry from contemporary South Africa. Danny’s anti-apartheid work was furthered when he worked with Steve van Zandt and Artists United Against Apartheid to help put together the powerful group video about Sun City—a idea for musical collaboration that would take off in future projects like “We Are the World--, and it was fitting that Danny became the main film-maker from the U.S. asked to help document Nelson Mandela’s post-apartheid work, including Mandela’s first trip to America. It is significant to note that, here in the example of the anti-apartheid movement, we can see a case where activists and artists, working together, in South Africa and in solidarity around the globe, were able to achieve a major political victory in toppling the racist apartheid system.
Danny’s other TV and film work—from his weekly international human rights television show to his documentary film about the media’s role in facilitating the Iraq war, “Weapons of Mass Deception,” and to his film about the Chinese government’s repression of the Falun Gong movement--were always first-rate; as were his books, including The More You Watch, The Less You Know. The latter was an inventive, genre-breaking mix of biography and media criticism, including critiques of a mainstream media that he had once worked with as a “20/20” producer and as part of the founding producers of CNN. With Danny’s many independent film and TV projects after he left ABC and CNN, it was clear that the more you watched the more you knew.
Danny was as prolific as anyone I have ever met. Somehow, amid his many film and book projects, he even found the time to keep up with the evolving technology of the internet, helping to create mediachannel.org, where he wrote a daily News Dissector blog presenting some of the most incisive commentary found anywhere online or in print on contemporary politics, economics, and the media. (I was an occasional contributor of poems and letters to that site.) On that site, Danny was way ahead of the curve on a wide range of issues: from issues of war and peace to the Bush-era Wall Street economic bust and mortgage foreclosure crisis, about which he called for the busting of at least some of those executives responsible for the many ways in which average Americans were being robbed of their housing and savings because of Wall Street’s endlessly grinding greed.
I’m not sure how many of Danny’s journalist friends knew about his love for poetry, especially socially engaged poetry. Given his poetic upbringing, it was not surprising that Danny was also an old friend of the poet, Allen Ginsberg, who was a onetime teacher and longtime friend of mine. When I was working with Allen’s assistants, Bob Rosenthal and Peter Hale, and the poet, Ed Sanders, to organize a large tribute for Allen at New York City’s St. John the Divine Cathedral in 1998 (one year after Allen’s death), Bob, Peter and I met with Danny several times to brainstorm ideas for the event, including to think about which activist groups we should invite to table at the event. The event itself, attended by over 2,500 people, coincidentally turned out to take place on the same night that the last episode of the TV show, “Seinfeld,” was being aired. On the same late afternoon in which a long line of people were lining up outside St. John the Divine Cathedral to get into the Ginsberg tribute, another long line of people on a nearby block were lining up to get into Tom’s Diner to watch that last episode from one of the show’s popular filming locations. Danny, humorous and fast on his feet as always, took the occasion to add some improvisation to his prepared speech, including comparing Ginsberg, a poet who wrote about everything, to a TV show that was infamously self-billed as being about nothing (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
Danny’s political imagination was legendary. And sometimes, rumor had it, he had a legendary temper with his staff. Because of that temper, Danny might not win many elections to sainthood, but he was easily one of the most important media makers, media activists, and media critics of our time.
At idea-related meetings that I was part of, Danny would rarely limit his brainstorming creativity to the narrow subject at hand. One of the ideas that Danny suggested during our meetings about organizing a large public tribute event for Allen Ginsberg was that a documentary film should be made about Allen’s signal poem, “Howl,” in what would be the first major film that focused in on a single American poem. Danny’s idea was that the film could explore the making and meaning of the poem, as well as the enormous influence of the poem on the culture and political activism of the 1960s and on all future generations since. In the end, Danny didn’t find the time to make the film, but a film about “Howl” was indeed made by two well-known West Coast filmmakers. A docudrama with James Franco doing a good job of playing Allen, that film turned out to be a different kind of film than the documentary Danny had hoped to make, which would have looked at the poem’s impact through ensuing decades, but it was still interesting and important as the first widely distributed full-length film about a U.S. writer’s poem. Not very many people know the back-story that the film, “Howl: The Movie,” originated as Danny’s idea, and my guess is that there are probably at least dozens, if not hundreds, of other activist and cultural projects that sprang originally from Danny’s inspiring imagination.
To advance a more deeply democratic politics and culture will require a wide variety of roles and contributions—some individual, some collective, some from behind a keyboard or a canvass or a movie camera and others from organizing meeting rooms and from the streets. As both an incredibly productive journalist and a highly strategic activist, Danny contributed in more roles than most—as a News Dissector, Democracy Projector, Rally Organizer, Culture Distributor, and more. Like so many around the world, I will really miss Danny Schechter’s voice, his sense of humor, his friendship, and his unending passion for a deeper democracy.