Danny Schechter, ‘The News Dissector’, died of cancer in Manhattan last Thursday. This filmmaker, media critic, radio presenter, author and television producer also wore another hat – anti-Apartheid activist. KIM HARRISBERG worked with him on his final project in New York City before his death.
I first met Danny Schechter at Union Station in Washington DC. I was fresh out of journalism school and was waiting for him with a giant green backpack slung on my shoulders as crowds rushed off in every direction. In contrast, he had been in the industry for over 50 years, and had a Wikipedia page that made me slightly intimidated. He shuffled over with his grey hair pointing in every direction, his big glasses smudged and slightly lopsided; his smile wide. He lifted his jacket above his head to try to slip his arms into the sleeves, and quarters spilled forth from his pockets, showering him in a golden hail storm, coins encircling him like ripples in a pool.
I had impulsively booked a flight to come and work with Danny as a researcher on his final documentary series, America’s Surveillance State, after a mutual contact had put us in touch. “Look, we have just begun the project,” said Danny to me over Skype a few days before we would meet in person. “If you want to come and learn a thing or two, you need to get here this week.” This was the urgency with which Danny lived each day.
Soon, I was in New York City, sitting in on interviews with ex-National Security Agency (NSA) officials as they spoke of Edward Snowden, dead drops and dismantling their cellphones to avoid being listened to when in meetings or in interviews, such as the one we were currently having. They also spoke of their harrowing experiences with US government after becoming whistleblowers on the pervasive and perverted spying tactics they were using both on perceived “threats” outside the country, and on your average American citizen Instagramming a picture of a Dunkin’ Donut.
When I was not in interviews, I was transcribing interviews, helping tweak scripts, researching, ordering the said research and, of course, exploring New York City with Danny.
“Agent,” he said to me one day (the nickname he had given me after our first interview with an ex-CIA agent), “I need your help sorting through some media archives.” I agreed to help, yet was not quite prepared for what I would see. In his Manhattan loft, sat boxes and boxes of frozen moments in his journalism career. I spotted two (slightly worse for wear) Emmy Awards lying in a draw, interview stills with Madiba, John Lennon and Henry Kissinger, and 17 books he had written throughout the years littering his shelves.
Over the months I spent working with Danny, I began to understand the inexorable historical and emotional connection he had to South Africa. “When I went to London School of Economics, I went up to this South African girl and was trying to flirt with her,” Danny tells me one day. “It turns out it was Ruth First, and she happened to be taken,” he laughs.
Nevertheless, Ruth befriended Danny, who was known for his activism in the American Civil Rights Movement. He would soon become one of the “London Recruits” of Umkhonto we Sizwe, and would be setting off ANC pamphlet bombs in Johannesburg.
For Danny, a human struggle was a universal one. He cried more than once when speaking to me about a protest, an activist, or a movement.
In between activism, Danny spent time working with CNN and ABC news networks, yet was strongly compelled to move away from mainstream media in the hope of telling stories that were not influenced by corporate or commercial needs. He founded Globalvision Media with his partner Rory O’Connor and together they launched the television series South Africa Now: a weekly news and cultural report focusing on the state of South Africa towards the end of Apartheid. In a time when local South African media was heavily censored, Danny was putting together stories with South Africa stringers on the ground, alerting the American public of the true happenings in the country.
His ties to South Africa did not end there. He documented the first democratic elections in the country, Mandela’s first visit to the United States and wrote extensively and furiously about South Africa: in books, blogs, Twitter posts and poems. His most recent book, published earlier this year, was titled: When South Africa Called, We Answered and documented his journey as a young, idealistic and impassioned ANC comrade.
For Danny, media was his weapon, and this included music too. In 1985, Danny, the musician Steven Van Zandt and record producer Arthur Baker managed the group ‘Artists United Against Apartheid’: a group of musicians behind the protest album entitled Sun City.
Danny assisted musician Keith LeBlanc on producing an audio-collage called Revolutionary Situation where they remixed speeches of Apartheid politicians, township revolts, and talks by activists into a jarring musical album that made people listen up, finding a spot on Rolling Stone‘s list of the best 100 albums of the 1980s.
‘Danny Schecter, the News Dissector’ was a title Danny donned proudly. This was born from his early days of journalism, when he was presenting on a Boston radio station and his colleague introduced him as “Danny Schechter – the news inspector, the news digester, the news dissector!” Besides being rhythmically appealing, this title suited Danny to a T; Danny, who went on to use his daily 3,000-word blog to dissect any aspect of the news he could get his hands on.
On one of my last days in New York, I sat with Danny is his chaotic loft; African masks, protest posters and awards covering his walls. We watched a short documentary about his life, with images of him amid protests, microphone in hand, carefully treading the line between journalism and activism. He had often described himself as a “participatory journalist” – something which left me both wary and impressed.
We went for a walk in Central Park, and paused so that I could take a photograph of him that was to be used in his new website. More comfortable behind the camera than in front of it, Danny shuffled his feet, smiled awkwardly, and then, almost instinctively, clenched his right fist and raised his hand in the air: Amandla! This is how I will remember him. DM
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