Remembering Danny Schechter

Danny Schechter speaking at the 2009 Eurasian Media Forum in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Danny Schechter speaking at the 2009 Eurasian Media Forum in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

One of my proudest moments as a journalist took place in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in the spring of 2009, when Danny Schechter and I both spoke out on behalf of Yevgeniya Plakhina, a young reporter who was fighting for freedom of speech on the Internet.

Danny and I were in Almaty to speak at the Eurasian Media Forum, an annual gathering of journalists and academics that is essentially sponsored by the government of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

When Plakhina disrupted a panel to protest the arrest of several of her fellow activists, Danny started demanding answers. Sadly, what he wrote at the time is no longer online. But I interviewed Plakhina and wrote an article about it for The Guardian. (And in case you’re wondering what happened to Plakhina, she is alive and well, according to her Facebook page.)

Danny died of pancreatic cancer in New York on Thursday at the age of 72. The news that Danny was gone hit me hard, as it did a lot of people I know. He was someone I had admired since I was a teenager and he was the “News Dissector” on WBCN Radio in Boston. Listening to Danny and reading alternative weeklies like The Boston Phoenix and The Real Paper were what led me to pursue a career in journalism.

We weren’t especially close, but I considered him a friend. I interviewed him on occasion and reviewed a few of his books. (Here is an index of the posts I wrote about him for this blog.) In reading some of the tributes to him on Facebook last night, he seemed David Carr-like in how many lives he touched. He was certainly Carr-like in his energy, fearlessness and kindness toward others.

You can read all about his career in this obituary by Don Hazen at AlterNet.

Schechter was, among many other things, perhaps the leading Western journalist in reporting on South Africa and Nelson Mandela. Which leads to another story about Danny.

A few years ago Danny and I were talking about “Sun City,” an anti-apartheid music video produced by Artists United Against Apartheid, founded by Steve Van Zandt and producer Arthur Baker. Schechter was deeply involved in the making of “Sun City.” Everyone wanted Miles Davis to be included, but no one wanted to contact the notoriously difficult musician. Schechter agreed to do it, though not, he told me, without a considerable amount of trepidation. As it turned out, Miles agreed immediately — and Danny was hugely relieved. (That and other stories about “Sun City” are told in this Wikipedia article. And if you’ve never seen “Sun City,” stop what you’re doing and click here. Link now fixed.)

Danny and I in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Danny (right) and I in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Back to Kazakhstan. It was because of Danny that I was invited to speak at the Eurasian Media Forum — he’d attended previous forums, and he recommended me to moderate one panel and participate in another. It was what you might call a semi-legitimate event, held, it seemed, to bolster the image of the president’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, who is in charge of the forum every year.

Some of the journalists who attended struck me as nauseatingly obsequious to their hosts, but not Danny. Taking his cheerful defiance as my inspiration, I left the hotel (something that was not encouraged by the organizers) to interview Adil Nurmakov, an editor for Global Voices Online and a member of the political opposition.

Danny was especially delighted at the outdoor party that ended the forum. As scantily clad young women danced to loud, vaguely Kazakh-sounding music, Danny yelled in my ear, “This is a nominally Muslim country!” He kept repeating something one of the Kazakh attendees told him about the display of female flesh: “Ach! This is nothing!

Danny’s father, Jerry, died just six years ago at the age of 90. Unlike Jerry Schechter, Danny was not granted the gift of longevity. But he packed a lot of living into his 72 years and touched many lives. Today my heart goes out to his family and friends, including his longtime business partner, Rory O’Connor.

Danny Schechter was a giant of journalism and of progressive politics, demonstrating that the two could be combined with passion and integrity. It’s hard to believe that he’s gone.

This article has been reposted at WGBHNews.org and Common Dreams.

9 thoughts on “Remembering Danny Schechter

  1. Stan Franzeen

    A touching tribute to him. Thanks! I only met him once, but I always appreciated his work on BCN in the 70s and 80s. Was surprised that ABC hired him as a producer given his POV. Stan

  2. From the time our paths crossed at the Phoenix, I knew Danny to be a serious-minded, highly principled journalist of the highest order. He never fudged the truth or sucked up to the powers-that-be. Throughout his career, his sizing up of a situation was a benchmark against which to measure one’s own assessment. Much too young to die.

    1. Stan Franzeen

      Hey Margie,
      Best regards from many years ago. The media environment has changed so much, and we lose so many champions each year. but I’m confident that many in the younger generations have the will to make a difference.

      1. If they round out that will to make a difference with serious training – whether from folks like Dan Kennedy at Northeastern or workshops run by Joe Bergantino at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting – or elsewhere, then your optimism may be justified. Best wishes to you.

  3. Rory O'Connor

    Thank you, Dan — further evidence that Danny was anti-authority, no matter who was the authority!

  4. Robin young

    Thanks for this Dan. This news was crushing tho inevitable given the illness.
    Today I sat with 20 something relatives for 2 hours and tried to explain. I don’t know if it’s true that on early BCN Danny said, on air, ” the US is napalming children in Vietnam ” and was sued by Dow and won, that’s the story, but he certainly helped ban Dow ads .. And was so dogged in his reporting..

    Trying to convey that today
    led to our looking for the iconic photo of the little girl running naked down the street in Vietnam.. And then somehow we veered off to “wow john Kerry was a war hero then an anti was activist before he was sec of state?? ”

    And the pictures of him testifying as a young founder of Vietnam vet against war …
    then I explained Sun City…
    They were wide eyed . Oh! I said. He also practically discovered and promoted hip hop!

    Anyway, I’m thrown back to 1973 when I was the first woman at wbz and fell in love with those lost boys (and maxanne!!) at WBCN , literally fell in love,with tommy hadges, and I told my boss at the powerhouse BZ , who was all of 29, “there’s something happening there ” and he said “oh FM, it’ll never last”.

    And it strikes me now, Danny didn’t just last. He continues to inform, even after his death, as 20 somethings tear up over a picture of a little girl running naked down the street. Danny Schechtor told us about it. And he was right.

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