Obituaries

Danny Schechter, at 72; ‘news dissector,’ documentarian, activist

Mr. Schechter, who 2004
Ozier Muhammad/New York Times/file 2004
Mr. Schechter, who 2004

If WBCN’s DJs could have read what he wrote, Danny Schechter might never have unleashed his Bronx accent on Boston’s airwaves at the outset of the 1970s. Newly elevated to writing newscasts, he found himself behind a microphone at the FM station when an announcer took a look at the pages he produced and said: You read it.

“I had poor typing skills and worse handwriting,” Mr. Schechter conceded in “The More You Watch, The Less You Know,” his 1997 book about television news foibles.

As DJ Jim Parry finished his shift, Mr. Schechter added, he “gave me a James Brown-like longwinded intro, with a bunch of phrases, invented on the spot, that rhymed with my name. ‘Here he is, folks, the news detector, news reflector, news inspector, and news dissector, Danny Schechter.’ ” Just like that he had a career-defining nickname. “The news dissector tag stuck,” Mr. Schechter wrote. “Now I had to live up to it.”

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Over the next 45 years, he became one of the most prolific and wide-ranging media voices on the political left, blending human rights activism with journalism as he moved from radio to television news, films, and blogging. Working in and out the mainstream, he won two Emmy Awards for his work with ABC’s “20/20,” produced numerous independent documentaries, and wrote books of media criticism with eviscerating titles such as “When News Lies” and “Embedded: Weapons of Mass Deception.”

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Tireless even upon entering New York City’s Weill Cornell Medical Center for the last time during the final stages of pancreatic cancer, he asked his daughter to bring his computer so he could complete two articles. Mr. Schechter, who lived in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, died March 19. He was 72 and had finished a book about his experience with his illness. Never missing an opportunity for wordplay or an eyebrow-arching literary allusion, he called it “Topic of Cancer.”

“He was a serious and driven journalist,” said Rory O’Connor, who cofounded the production company Globalvision with Mr. Schechter, “but he also had a yippie-like ability to find joy and humor on the path to finding the truth.”

While at WBCN in the 1970s, Mr. Schechter wrote occasionally for the Globe, and he took time away from the station for a Nieman fellowship at Harvard University. “I came to Harvard to lower my consciousness,” he told The Crimson, the university’s student newspaper, in 1978.

He then moved into Boston television, first at WGBH and then producing “Five All Night, Live All Night” for WCVB, Channel 5, until he proved too controversial for management. Mr. Schechter worked for CNN during the cable channel’s early days and produced segments for ABC. Then he and O’Connor, who formerly worked for The Real Paper, one of Boston’s alternative weeklies, founded Globalvision. Their company received a special George Polk Award in 1990 for producing “South Africa Now,” a weekly show on public television stations across the country. They also produced “Rights & Wrongs: Human Rights Television,” hosted by public television correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault.

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An early adopter of the Internet, Mr. Schechter launched the nonprofit website mediachannel.org. Reporting from 47 countries, he wrote so much and produced so many documentaries that his books contained what he called a partial list of his credits. Even he couldn’t keep track of his output. “He was relentless,” O’Connor said of his partner, who regularly worked 10- to 16-hour days. “He was totally indefatigable.”

The older of two brothers, Mr. Schechter was born in New York City and grew up in the Bronx. His grandparents had fled persecution in Russia and his parents were socialists and union activists. The family lived in the Amalgamated Houses, a clothing workers union co-operative. His father, Jerry Schechter, was a pattern-maker who turned to sculpture after losing a leg to illness. His mother, the former Ruth Lisa Lubin, was a hospital secretary who wrote poetry, including “The Journalist,” which includes the lines:

Never one to go gently

up or down a staircase, skipping

a step or two

you fly. Even the ceiling shifts

I hold my breath

as though you were a child

I want to shout: Careful, Hold On

to the banister.

Despite the poetic admonition, Mr. Schechter kept his hand off all of life’s bannisters. He graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, where he was editor in chief of the student newspaper, and was already participating in protests before going to Cornell University. He took time off from college to volunteer as a civil rights activist in Mississippi.

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“I admire my brother because of his lifelong commitment to the values that his grandparents and his parents gave him: to assume responsibility in any way he could to make this world a better place,” said his brother, Bill of Brookline.

Mr. Schechter, whose two marriages ended in divorce, received a master’s from the London School of Economics, after graduating from Cornell. His only child is Sarah Debs Schechter, a Los Angeles film executive. He wanted her middle name to be Debs as a tribute to the legendary union leader Eugene Debs, and so her initials would be SDS, a tip of the hat to the 1960s activist group Students for a Democratic Society.

“He was an incredible father,” she said. “He dragged me all over the world, and I am better for it. He taught me how big the world is and how much change one person can make.”

From his antiapartheid documentaries to more recent work examining the financial crisis and the mainstream media’s coverage of the wars after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, “he was always trying to bring light to the dark corners of human suffering,” she said.

“He never stopped trying because he never stopped caring,” she added. “I think his great accomplishment was how much he accomplished.”

A service will be announced for Mr. Schechter, who leaves his daughter, his brother, and Denzil McKenzie, a friend who grew up in the Bronx household with the Schechter brothers.

During his career, Mr. Schechter's friends and colleagues were a who’s who of progressive and left-wing politics and culture. He was friends with activist Abbie Hoffman and grew close to Nelson Mandela during the antiapartheid years. A classic photo shows a grinning Mr. Schechter standing between John Lennon and Yoko Ono as Lennon holds up an unplugged cord from recording equipment. Noam Chomsky, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and activist, once said that as Boston radio’s news dissector, “Danny Schechter literally educated a generation.”

“I know that change is possible, from my own experience, my own snatch of the century,” Mr. Schechter told the Globe in 1997. In an essay last year for the website commondreams.org, he remained relentless, though he was frank about the challenges confronting humanity at every turn.

“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,” he wrote. “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.”

Bryan Marquard
can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.