Remembering the news dissector
Back in the 1960s, most Americans got their news from the network TV evening newscasts: 22 minutes of objective, authoritative reporting, punctuated on CBS by anchor Walter Cronkite’s signature sign-off: “And that’s the way it is…”
But that’s not the way it would be, for long.
The opposition to the draft and undeclared war in Vietnam, exploding counterculture with its mind-expanding drugs and music, radical politics and the emerging women’s and gay liberation movements would fundamentally change American society, perhaps most significantly, the media.
Today, media critics abound. They examine, critique and deconstruct the news, including its language, sources, and conflicts of interest of news organizations that are often owned by billionaires or multi-national corporations.
But before this, there was Danny Schechter, journalist and activist, known to his listeners on Boston’s WBCN-FM as “Your News Dissector.”
Danny grew up in the Bronx, and arrived in Boston in the late 1960s by way of Cornell and the London School of Economics. He worked for Cambridge’s radical Old Mole newspaper and then for WBCN throughout the 1970s. Later he worked for CNN, produced Emmy-winning programs for “ABC News,’’ and wrote 12 books.
Danny died from pancreatic cancer on March 19, at age 72. However, over the past five decades, he helped change forever the way news is produced and consumed.
Danny and I met at WBCN in November 1970. I was a 14-year-old volunteer answering listener calls, and Danny was doing two daily newscasts with no staff. Soon after, he handed me a Sony cassette recorder and asked me to go to the old Boston Police Headquarters on Berkeley Street where there was a protest over the killing of Black Panther Fred Hampton by the Chicago police.
“Ask people: ‘Why are you here?’” Danny told me.
They were highly-charged and tumultuous times, and WBCN was often in the middle of radical actions. I covered the blockading of train tracks in Cambridge by demonstrators obstructing the work of war-related technology companies, and I reported live on the radio from inside the Harvard Center for International Affairs, Henry Kissinger’s former office, during a break-in by protesters who “liberated” confidential files that would reveal the collaborations between Harvard and CIA clandestine operations in Latin America, Asia and Africa.
“We all would see the hypocrisy in the Vietnam war, and what was going on in Chile and South Africa, and how we were being manipulated by the establishment. But Danny saw it before anybody,” said former WBCN announcer Charles Laquidara, whose on-air nickname at the time, “Laughing Goose the Weatherman” was an homage to the radical organization.
“[WBCN] is where all the young people in Boston got their news. People tuned in to Danny, as today people tune into Jon Stewart, [Stephen] Colbert and Bill Maher, to find out what’s really going on,” Laquidara said in a telephone interview from his home in Hawaii.
“The Boston of [the early 1970s] . . . was a crucible for redefining journalism,” recalled Sidney Blumenthal, a former Boston Phoenix writer, author and former senior adviser to President Clinton in a tribute to Danny in ColdType magazine. “Danny’s six o’clock reports were essential listening. He had a thrilling way of combining fact and analysis, in a stream of information about the most important events that could be heard no place else.”
Rather than the news of those in power, Danny’s newscasts gave voice to students and academics, working people and activists, struggling to make social, political and cultural change. His reports stood in contrast to the nightly TV newscasts that used the language of the Nixon administration, such as calling the North Vietnamese “the enemy” in the undeclared conflict, or reporting the war’s daily body counts.
“What made Danny’s work special” MIT Professor and political commentator Noam Chomsky, who was frequently heard on WBCN, observed in an e-mail, “[was that] Danny was willing to speak plain English with simple common sense, enriched by knowledge and penetrating insight.”
Danny was also among the first to challenge the widely-held belief among journalists that the primary goal of news was to be “objective.”
“News has a point of view. All news,” Danny said in the 1973 documentary “What is News” I produced for WBCN. “Reporters say they want to be objective. That is: factually accurate, balanced or — to use the much overworked phrase — they want to cover both sides of the story. But a story, almost any story, has more than two sides. It usually has a history and a context.” This insight led Danny to examine news organizations, including the stories they covered or ignored, what sources they quoted, and the language used, and how it all reflected the values of the news outlet and its owners.
“There was an enormous gap between the time of Edward R. Murrow’s caution that radio and TV, at their worst, were just ‘wires and lights in a box’ in 1958 and Danny Schechter’s coming on the scene in the early 1970s,” said Douglas Warshaw, an ESPN executive producer who worked with Danny at ABC News. “Danny was the first to full-time examine the ties between the media, big business and big money — and challenge the media to be better.”
Danny’s critical approach to news had an influence on other journalists and how they approached their work.
Journalist Jonathan Alter told me listening to Danny’s newscasts as an undergraduate at Harvard in the 1970s led him to adopt Danny’s “spirit of skepticism and the rejection of tired assumptions and conventional wisdom . . . inside the belly of the beast,” as Alter referred to it, during his decade as Newsweek’s media critic.
Alter cited examples of “Danny Schechter-style media criticism” that appeared in his Newsweek column including: “Why the New York Times won’t cover the AIDS epidemic and why they don’t include the names of partners in obituaries when people die of AIDS? . . . And, why had the media had gone soft on Ronald Reagan?”
At “ABC News” in the 1980s, Danny produced the first network report on the Guardian Angels subway vigilantes and on Tina Turner’s recovery from domestic abuse. His focus would later return to South Africa’s system of apartheid, which he witnessed first-hand visiting the country as a student in the 1960s. His “Sun City” music video featured 54 leading musicians, including Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Miles Davis, decrying apartheid, and his 1988 public TV series “South Africa Now” provided many viewers around the world with their first look at the realities of apartheid.
Perhaps not surprisingly, some were concerned that Danny’s work crossed the line between journalism and advocacy. In fact, PBS refused to run Danny’s “South Africa Now” series saying he was acting as an activist, and not a journalist, by creating a program that was unabashedly anti-apartheid.
David Guilbault, a senior producer who worked with Danny at “ABC News,” recalls that at first he questioned whether Danny’s activist journalism crossed an ethical journalistic boundary between reporting and advocacy.
But Guilbault, writing in a tribute to Danny on Facebook, says: “I was wrong. Danny was openly honest, outspoken and courageous. I never saw any of Danny’s views reflected as biased reporting. His reporting was solid and factual. Danny told the truth. Instead, Danny’s social concerns were the basis for his story selection. He sought and told stories that were going unreported around the world by a too-timid press. Danny made a reputation as a dogged advocate for the oppressed.”
Guilbault was seconded by Alter.
“Danny put truth and the interest of the readers above all else,” Alter said. “That’s what made him a great journalist.”
Bill Lichtenstein is a journalist.