My international travel portfolio is odd, to say the least. It consists of two countries: Canada — and Kazakhstan. I visited the former Soviet republic in the spring of 2009 after being invited to take part in the Eurasian Media Forum, which brought together several hundred journalists, academics and political figures.
At the time, Kazakhstan was a semi-authoritarian country that, we all hoped, was starting to open itself up to the West. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. The longtime president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, tightened his control over the years. And now Nazarbaev’s successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, has cracked down on protests and appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin for help.
The country has slid from 125th on Reporters without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index in 2009 to 155th today. The organization’s report for 2021 says that
the state is modernizing its methods of repression and, in particular, exercising more control over the Internet, where surveillance is now widespread, news sites, social media and messaging services are now subjected to more “effective” periodic cuts, and bloggers have been jailed or confined to psychiatric clinics.
The Eurasian Media Forum was organized by Nazarbaev’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, who fancied herself as something of an intellectual. The event was aimed at providing the regime with some respectability. The most memorable part of the conference, though, was a protest by a group of young activists over Nazarbaev’s censorship of the internet, a protest that led to several arrests.
One of the activists, a young woman named Yevgeniya Plakhina, disrupted the proceedings and demanded that her friends be released. My friend the late Danny Schechter and I interviewed Plakhina, and I wrote about it for The Guardian. It was not exactly the sort of publicity the regime was hoping for. I also interviewed Adil Nurmakov, a political activist who at that time was an editor for Global Voices Online, a project then based at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center that tracks citizen media around the world.
The conference ended with a party sponsored by the International Herald Tribune (owned by the New York Times Co.) and CNN International — a conflict of interest they would have been better off avoiding. We were treated to a troupe of scantily clad go-go dancers (“This is a nominally Muslim country!” Schechter yelled at me over the noise, laughing) and a chorus of singers anchored by none other than Dariga Nazarbayeva. Below is a video I recorded of their performance.
Needless to say, Kazakhstan is hardly alone in backsliding on the way to democracy. We’re not doing that well in the United States, either. Neverthess, it’s sad to see that the hopes people had a dozen years ago have ended in violence and the arrival of Russian troops.
Like all of us who are old enough, I have vivid memories of Sept. 11, 2001, just as our older brothers and sisters do about the assassination of John F. Kennedy and as our parents and grandparents did about the attack on Pearl Harbor. As others have said over and over again, it was a cool, clear morning, a preview of fall. I was working at The Boston Phoenix, where I covered media and politics. I stepped outside to get coffee and ran into an old acquaintance.
“Isn’t it terrible what happened at the World Trade Center?” she asked.
I didn’t know what she was talking about. I hurried inside. American Airlines Flight 11, which originated at Logan Airport in Boston, had crashed into the North Tower. There was talk of terrorism.
The Phoenix did not have what you would call a well-equipped newsroom. We had a TV that got a handful of channels but no cable. It was obvious what I would be writing about, so I raced to my car and hurried home to the North Shore. I turned on the radio and listened to coverage of the second tower’s collapse just as I was rounding the bend to Route 1. And then I sat down in front of the television set, watching for hour after hour and wondering how I would make sense of it all. Finally, sometime well after midnight, I started to write.
The piece I came up with was headlined “The End of Decadence.” In it, I expressed my hope that the media would finally return to a sense of purpose and seriousness after a decade of wallowing in celebrity culture, the O.J. Simpson trial and the theater-of-the-absurd impeachment of a president over his tawdry sex life.
In fact, the media did change after 9/11, but not for the better. The downward slide didn’t happen immediately. At first, the press diligently covered the aftermath of the attacks. The New York Times ran a wonderful series on the victims called “Portraits of Grief.” Journalists sought to make sense of how security measures aimed at preventing such attacks had so thoroughly broken down. The hunt for Osama bin Laden was covered with great enterprise and courage.
But it wasn’t long before President George W. Bush, a unifying figure in the days immediately after the attacks, began leading the nation in a divisive direction. His uplifting rhetoric about Muslims was offset by the government’s treatment of Muslims as a security risk. He went to war not just in Afghanistan but in Iraq, claiming — falsely, as it turned out — that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed weapons of mass destruction.
And the media went along for the ride. Few questioned the Bush administration’s claims about Iraq, and few questioned why our incursion into Afghanistan had turned into a full-fledged war to transform a place we didn’t understand into a Western-style democracy. The Times in particular disgraced itself with its credulous, gung-ho coverage, but so did most other news outlets — especially cable news. My late friend Danny Schechter, the “News Dissector,” called it “militainment,” a construction he borrowed from James Poniewozik, then with Time magazine, now with the Times.
Over the next few years, the wars and the Bush White House both lost support, and the media began to fracture into what we see today — a reflection of the polarization that has made it nearly impossible for Democrats and Republicans even to speak to each other. On one side we have the mainstream media, hardly perfect but dedicated to reporting the truth, trusted by about 60% of the country. On the other side we have right-wing propaganda that has convinced 40% of the country that Donald Trump won the 2020 election, vaccines are dangerous and critical race theory is the most serious threat facing us.
Last month, the 20-year misadventure set off by 9/11 was finally brought to an end as the United States pulled its last remaining troops out of Afghanistan. It was a chaotic, ugly finish, and President Joe Biden has received quite a bit of criticism for it. But it does bring a close to the story that began on that clear September day in 2001.
The conclusion of the war in Afghanistan ends an era in journalism as well. Think back to where we were. Fox News was barely a blip on the radar. CNN consisted of straight news rather than opinionated talk shows. There was no Facebook, no Twitter, no broadband. The internet-driven collapse of newspapers was still in the future. In other words, it was a time of consensus in the media and in the culture, at least compared with what was to come.
Over the weekend, Bush was praised for his forthright denunciation of the Trump-inspired domestic terrorists of 2021. “There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home,” he said. “But in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard for human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit. And it is our continuing duty to confront them.”
That’s all well and good. But it was Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld who started us down the road to Jan. 6 with their catastrophic wars, their trampling of civil liberties in this country and their use of torture abroad. And it was a combination of cowardice and gullibility on the part of too many in the media that helped bring us to the crisis of democracy we are dealing with today.
The late activist-journalist Danny Schechter was a friend and inspiration to many of us, and his voice is deeply missed. Fortunately, his spirit lives on in the form of the DANNY Awards, which honor those who combine excellence in journalism with social activism. What follows is a press release announcing that this year’s award will go to Native American activist Winona LaDuke. And here is an accompanying essay by Schechter’s business partner, Rory O’Connor.
NEW YORK — The Global Center, a nonprofit educational foundation dedicated to developing socially responsible media, is pleased to announce that the Native American leader Winona LaDuke is the recipient of the fifth annual Danny Award. The award, which honors the life and work of the late Danny Schechter, the “News Dissector,” is given each year to those who best emulate Schechter’s practice of combining excellent journalism with committed social activism. It includes a $3,000 grant to further the recipient’s work.
An environmentalist, economist, author and activist, LaDuke has already written six nonfiction books and has a new one, “To be A Water Protector,” coming out this fall. She’s also written “Last Standing Woman,” a novel about an American Indian reservation’s struggle to restore its culture. Her writings are widely published and cited in academic writing. A graduate of Harvard University, LaDuke has worked extensively in Native and community-based organizing and groups. In 1985 she helped establish the Indigenous Women’s Network, dedicated to “generating a global movement that achieves sustainable change for our communities,” and then, with the proceeds of a humanrights award, founded the White Earth Land Recovery Project to help the Anishinaabeg Indians regain possession of their original land base.
In the 1990s LaDuke became involved with the Green Party and was presidential candidate Ralph Nader’s running mate in both the 1996 and 2000 elections. Today she is the executive director of Honor the Earth, a Native environmental advocacy organization she co-founded in 1993 with the folk-rock duo the Indigo Girls. The organization played an active role in the Dakota Access Pipeline protests and remains a key opponent to proposals by the Canadian multinational corporation Enbridge to bring more tar sands to the United States. LaDuke continues to write and speak in support of water protectors and in opposition to other pipelines and mega projects near Native land and waters.
Whether or not activism and journalism should mix remains controversial, but in the face of allegations of “fake news,” the invention of “alternative facts,” charges that the news media is an “enemy of the people,” and outright police assaults on reporters covering protests, it has increasingly become embraced by professional practitioners. To Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times, “Journalism is activism in its most basic form.” Wesley Lowery, who left The Washington Post in a dispute over his own activism, says the core value of news organizations “needs to be the truth, not the perception of objectivity.”
America’s “view-from-nowhere, ‘objectivity’-obsessed, both-sides journalism is a failed experiment,” Lowery has said. “We need to rebuild our industry as one that operates from a place of moral clarity.” A NewsGuild spokesperson added, “When people in power are sowing doubt about basic facts, journalism looks like activism.” And Lowery concludes, “Journalists perform acts of activism every day. Any good journalist is an activist for truth, in favor of transparency, on the behalf of accountability.”
Decades ago, pioneering journalists like Danny Schechter took a stance toward such controversial topics as apartheid in South Africa and human-rights abuses around the world that led to being branded with a metaphoric scarlet letter – A for Advocate – and told that his activism meant that he really wasn’t a journalist at all. As one of the first to marry the two, Schechter often faced scorn for combining journalistic endeavors with advocacy and activism in support of causes for the social good. While at CNN and later ABC News, he pushed against the constraints of cable and broadcast news. He left ABC to partner in the independent production company Globalvision and began producing programming about such topics as apartheid in South Africa and human rights abuses around the world.
Schechter knew from firsthand experience at CNN and ABC that the commercial media world was not then open to such coverage. So he offered it instead to public television. Rather than being welcomed, he was told by top PBS executives that opposition to the racist regime in South Africa was too controversial and that human rights was “an insufficient organizing principle” for a television program. The PBS reaction, combined with deceitful right-wing protests, led to being told that advocacy on behalf of human rights meant that he wasn’t a journalist at all.
Sadly, such views, while not universally held, are still somewhat prevalent in today’s media world. But as the pace of change within the field of journalism continues to accelerate, many are raising questions about the role of advocacy and the concept of objectivity. Journalists with strong points of view are now giving us news and insights we can’t find elsewhere — even within so-called “mainstream” media. Should we even bother any more trying to distinguish between so-called “objective” journalism and advocacy? Many experts now say no.
“We might have passed the point where we can talk about objectivity in journalism with a straight face,” Patricia Aufderheide, founder of the Center for Media & Social Impact at American University, has noted. “Objectivity was always a shortcut. It was a useful little shortcut of a concept to say you should be fair, you should be honest, you should have integrity, you should tell people accurately and responsibly what you think are the important things about what you saw or researched. If what we’re doing is advocating for the public, that’s our job.”
And if a piece of journalism “isn’t advocacy, it isn’t journalism,” declares Jeff Jarvis, director of Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. “Isn’t advocacy on behalf of principles and the public the true test of journalism? The choices we make about what to cover and how we cover it and what the public needs to know are acts of advocacy on the public’s behalf. Don’t we believe that we act in their interest? After all, what is a journalist, if not an advocate on behalf of the public?”
Perhaps the last word for now should go to someone who epitomizes the so-called mainstream media, New York Times publisher A. G. Sulzberger. While “we’re not retreating from the principles of independence and objectivity,” Sulzberger recently told his paper’s media columnist, “we don’t pretend to be objective about things like human rights and racism.”
The Board of The Global Center congratulates Winona LaDuke and applauds her for both her exemplary reporting about women’s and indigenous rights and sustainable development and for advocating for change in the spirit of the late News Dissector, Danny Schechter.
ABOUT THE GLOBAL CENTER: The Global Center is a nonprofit educational foundation dedicated to developing informative and socially responsible media and a new type of journalism in which the reporting of events and conditions is done in conjunction with those most affected by those events. In addition to operating its own projects, the Center also acts as a fiscal sponsor for outside media efforts that fit within its mission and guidelines.
ABOUT THE DANNY: The Danny Schechter Global Vision Award for Journalism & Activism is given annually to individuals who best emulate Schechter’s practice of combining journalism with social activism and advocacy. In addition to the award, announced each June, recipients receive $3000 to support future work. Previous winners include Jose Antonio Vargas, Patrice O’Neill, the reporters and editors of the Eagle Eye, the student newspaper of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.
There is no way to apply for the DANNY. Recipients are chosen from a pool of qualified candidates. Those interested in contributing to the award can make tax-deductible donations to The Global Center. Please send contributions to:
The news was disorienting: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, whose alleged misdeeds range from sexual assault to acting as a Russian intelligence asset, would be honored with an award named after the late Danny Schechter, one of my journalistic role models.
Assange was recently charged under the Espionage Act for his part in obtaining and publishing secret U.S. documents supplied to him by Chelsea Manning, a former Army private. According to Rory O’Connor, Schechter’s longtime business partner, that is precisely why Assange has been named this year’s recipient of the Danny Schechter Global Vision Award for Journalism and Activism.
Schechter, who died four years ago, spent a long and productive career as a left-wing journalist, from his days as the WBCN “News Dissector” in Boston during the 1970s to a respected documentarian and author about issues such as apartheid, economic injustice, and media reform. Schechter was someone I probably checked in with a couple of times a year. In 2009, he and I covered a protest against internet censorship that broke out while we were attending a conference in Kazakhstan. Given all that, I wasn’t sure I was on board with O’Connor’s reasoning.
“The Assange case represents a threat not only to freedom of expression but also to the heart of American democracy itself,” O’Connor wrote. And in a retort to those who argue that Assange is not a journalist, O’Connor observed that Assange has in fact engaged in journalism of a sort: “Much of what he does, after all, involves selecting, editing, verifying and even contextualizing news material.”
Trouble is, Assange was a lot easier to defend back in 2010, when WikiLeaks and Manning were exposing American wrongdoing in the Iraq war, including looking the other way as Iraqi forces tortured prisoners. At that time, Assange appeared to be an honest exemplar of radical transparency. In those days I wrote a weekly column for The Guardian. And I argued that the Obama administration, which was reportedly looking into bringing charges against Assange on the theory that he had colluded with Manning, would be endangering First Amendment protections for mainstream news organizations.
I didn’t see then, and I don’t see now, how any news organization can be said not to have colluded with a source when it receives leaked documents. Didn’t the Times and The Washington Post collude with Daniel Ellsberg when they received the Pentagon Papers from him? Yes, there are differences. Ellsberg had finished making copies long before he began working with the Times, whereas Assange may have goaded Manning. But does that really matter?
The Obama administration, fortunately, decided to back off. But that was a long time ago. Assange, always a problematic figure, looks a lot worse today than he did then. In addition to extremely serious sexual assault charges against him and his role in Russia’s internet campaign against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, Assange spent years evading the authorities by holing up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he reportedly degenerated into the guest from hell, paying little attention to his personal hygience and possibly even neglecting his cat.
All of which, counterintuitively, is why the Danny Schechter Award may actually make sense. President Trump has been trying to delegitimize journalism since he launched his campaign four years ago, denouncing news organizations as “the enemy of the people” and vowing to end some libel protections for the media. Seen in that light, Assange is the ideal conduit through which to undermine freedom of the press. If you don’t want to defend Assange, you may not get the chance to defend The New York Times. If investigative reporting is redefined as a criminal act, who will hold the powerful to account?
When Assange was first charged several months ago it looked like the Trump administration was deliberately avoiding the most provocative course of action. Assange was not initially charged under the Espionage Act, but rather was accused of actively helping Manning steal documents — an activity that most definitely is not protected by the First Amendment.
Even so, there were hints of what was to come. Mathew Ingram, writing at the Columbia Journalism Review, pointed out that the FBI’s affidavit described behavior on Assange’s part such as taking steps to keep his relationship with Manning secret, including the use of encrypted messaging. These days, many top news organizations actively solicit secret documents through encrypted portals. Here, for example, is The Washington Post’s. If Assange broke the law, what about the Post and all the others?
Ingram added: “The affidavit also says Assange collaborated with Manning on ‘the public release of the information’ — in other words, publishing. It goes on to allege that Assange broke the law in part by receiving classified documents without a security clearance, something investigative journalists often do.”
The threat became more ominous last month, when the Trump administration added Espionage Act charges to the case against Assange. The government has never followed through on threats to use the World War I-era law to punish news organizations for publishing classified documents, despite threats to do so after the Pentagon Papers were made public and after The New York Times reported on the George W. Bush administration’s secret (and probably illegal) domestic spying program.
Now Assange has emerged as a test case — and if he loses, it’s hard to imagine why our leading news executives would be exempt. “For good reason, press-rights advocates are far more alarmed now than they were last month when Assange was initially indicted,” wrote Margaret Sullivan, the Post’s media columnist. She added: “What’s alarming about the indictment is the way it would criminalize some of the basic functions of newsgathering and publication.”
In his essay announcing the Danny Schechter Award, O’Connor wrote, “The charges against Assange make the ultimate targets of his prosecution clear: journalists worldwide. Prosecutors are using the case against him to mask a blatantly political campaign to limit all journalists — a cornerstone of the Trump agenda often expressed by the president himself.”
Given all that, I’m not worried about Danny Schechter’s legacy being sullied. In fact, he’d probably love the idea of using an award named after him to shine a spotlight on Assange. Saints and sinners alike deserve the protection of the First Amendment — and sinners, after all, are more in need of it.
The overwhelming crush of news emanating from the Trump administration makes it all but impossible to give more than passing attention to some of its worst and most damaging acts.
It can’t be helped. Though you could argue that the media pay too much attention to the president’s sociopathic Twitter feed, you certainly can’t fault journalists for focusing on the childish insults he has directed at Justin Trudeau and his embrace of the murderous dictator Kim Jong Un. To its credit, the press has also managed to provide reasonably comprehensive coverage of the administration’s inhumane treatment of refugee families.
But when you get down to wonkish issues like industry-backed changes in the way that the Environmental Protection Agency regulates toxic substances, well, good luck finding the sort of coverage that truly commands attention and sparks outrage. And yes, I’m going to recount some information I learned from a story that appeared on the front page of The New York Times last week, so this is not exactly a secret. But we all know that without amplification from the media echo chamber in the form of follow-up stories, cable news chatter, and the like, important stories tend to fade away pretty quickly.
The Times article, by Eric Lipton, grabbed my attention for a very specific reason: During the 1980s I was a reporter for The Daily Times Chronicle of Woburn, where I reported on families whose children became sick with leukemia — some fatally so — after the city water supply was contaminated with industrial solvents. The families sued the likely polluters, leading to a federal trial that was featured in Jonathan Harr’s riveting book “A Civil Action.” (The book was made into a less-than-riveting movie of the same name.)
A variety of chemicals were at issue in the Woburn case, but the two most important were trichloroethylene (a degreaser) and tetrachloroethylene (also known as perchloroethylene, used in dry cleaning) — both of which are now on the list of substances the EPA wants to ease up on. According to Lipton’s story, the EPA, acting at the behest of the chemical industry, may abandon an Obama-era initiative to measure the effect of these hazardous chemicals in the ground, water, and air, focusing instead on workplace exposure. Yet contaminated drinking water was precisely what was at issue in Woburn.
“The approach is a big victory for the chemical industry, which has repeatedly pressed the EPA to narrow the scope of its risk evaluations,” writes Lipton, who notes that Nancy Beck, the Trump appointee in charge of the initiative, “previously worked as an executive at the American Chemistry Council, one of the industry’s main lobbying groups.”
The 1986 federal case did not end well for the Woburn families — they settled out of court for short money after the trial ended in a muddle. But they left a legacy regarding what can happen when industry is allowed to dispose of toxic waste without regard for safety or health. Now that legacy is under attack. The media need to shine a light on this story — and to keep shining it until the EPA backs down.
An ambitious challenge
There was a time not too many years ago when newspaper owners hoped they would develop an advertising-based business model for online content that would allow them to earn profits while giving away their journalism. Craigslist, Google, and Facebook put an end to those dreams. In recent years, the emphasis has been on persuading readers to pay for digital news.
Now The Sacramento Bee has issued a challenge to its readers. Editor Lauren Gustus has written a note calling for digital subscriptions to quadruple, from 15,000 to 60,000. “We could fully fund our newsrooms — from salaries and benefits to notepads and pens — if we had 60,000 people supporting us through digital subscriptions,” she says.
Needless to say, that is a hugely ambitious goal. Though national newspapers such as The New York Times (3 million-plus) and The Washington Post (1 million-plus) have had some real success with digital subscriptions, regional papers have struggled. The Boston Globe, with nearly 100,000 digital-only subscriptions, has done as well as anyone. But though Globe executives say the paper could become sustainable if they double that number, that will likely prove to be an exceedingly difficult task.
Still, the Bee has some factors in its favor. According to Gustus’ message, the paper is bolstering its coverage with more accountability journalism and an audio newscast. Its owner, McClatchy, is widely regarded as one of the better corporate chains. And the price of a digital subscription — $130 a year — is affordable, especially compared with the Globe’s $360.
The best part about reader-funded journalism is that, if it works, owners will be wary of slashing their news coverage. People will pay more for more; they might even pay more for the same. But they’re not going to pay more for less.
Honoring Parkland’s student journalists
The third annual Danny — an honor named for the late, great progressive journalist Danny Schechter — has been awarded to The Eagle Eye, the student newspaper at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The award was announced by Rory O’Connor, Schechter’s friend and longtime business partner.
O’Connor writes in AlterNet that The Eagle Eye was singled out for comments by its student journalists that they sought to combine journalism with activism aimed at preventing mass shootings such as the one that took place at their school. Although some observers criticized the students for not embracing objectivity, O’Connor says that activist journalism is in the best tradition of the work performed by Schechter, “The News Dissector,” starting in the early 1970s at WBCN Radio in Boston and continuing until his death in 2015.
The award comes with a $3,000 donation to the paper’s journalism scholarship fund.
“Increasingly,” O’Connor writes, “it is becoming understood that journalists with strong, transparent points of view are giving us news and insights we truly need and can use.”
Rory O’Connor, a close friend and business partner of the late, great Danny Schechter, explains why the second annual Danny Award has been presented to anti-hate activist and filmmaker Patrice O’Neill.
My friend Danny Schechter, the progressive journalist and activist, died on March 19, 2015, at the age of 72. Today, on what would have been his 74th birthday, his longtime business partner Rory O’Connor announces the winner of the first Danny Schechter Global Vision Award for Journalism & Activism. The press release follows.
NEW YORK—The Global Center, a nonprofit educational foundation dedicated to developing socially responsible media, is pleased to announce Jose Antonio Vargas as the first recipient of a newly established annual award honoring the life and work of the late journalist and activist Danny Schechter, the “News Dissector.”
The Danny Schechter Global Vision Award for Journalism & Activism is awarded annually to an individual who best emulates Schechter’s practice of combining excellent journalism with social activism. The award includes a $3000 stipend to support future reporting and advocacy.
In 1993, when he was just 12, Vargas moved from his native Philippines to the United States. Four years later he learned he was an undocumented immigrant. By the time he turned 30, he had become a celebrated journalist: part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team at the Washington Post, a top executive at the Huffington Post, a writer for the New Yorker, a documentary filmmaker. But even after this meteoric rise, Vargas was still running from his past. “I spent all of my 20s being scared of the government, scared of myself,” he recalls. “I didn’t know if I could keep going, if I could keep lying.”
So Vargas took a bold and dangerous step, going public with his status in a 2011 cover story in the New York Times Magazine entitled “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant.” “After so many years of trying to be a part of the system, of focusing all my energy on my professional life,” he wrote, “ I learned that no amount of professional success would solve my problem or ease the sense of loss and displacement I felt…. I’m done running. I’m exhausted. I don’t want that life anymore. So I’ve decided to come forward.”
Vargas focused renewed attention to a volatile front in America’s ongoing cultural and political wars. His sudden flip from reporting to advocacy also led to greater recognition—within a year he and other undocumented immigrants were on the cover of Time magazine—but also to increased scrutiny and danger. Nevertheless he embraced his new role as an activist, even while expanding his efforts to reach people through journalism. Vargas says he always viewed his activism “as an act of journalism.”
To that end, he has added another title to his résumé: publisher. First came Define American, a nonprofit “using the power of stories to transcend politics and shift the conversation around immigrants, identity and citizenship in a changing America.” Most recently, he launched EmergingUS, an online news organization aimed at exploring the “evolving American identity” and creating“a new kind of journalism that represents all of us.”
What kind of journalism can we expect to see in the future from Vargas? One that is both factual and empathic. “Facts are to me, a religion as a journalist,” he says, but quickly adds, “I traffic in empathy. I try to be vulnerable with people so they can be vulnerable back.”
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.)
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.
On Feb. 6, 1997, just after the debut of “Greater Boston” on WGBH-TV (Channel 2), I wrote an article for The Boston Phoenix on the state of the city’s two major public broadcasters, WGBH and WBUR. It was the first time I’d met the host, Emily Rooney. The original is online here, but, as you will see, it’s unreadable; thus, I have reproduced it in full below. In re-reading it, I was struck by what an interesting moment in time that was, with many of the same names and issues still with us 17 years later.
With commercial stations going lowbrow, Boston’s public broadcasters are fine-tuning their strategies. The question: are WGBH & WBUR doing their duty?
Emily Rooney is taping the intro to a segment of WGBH-TV’s new local public-affairs show, Greater Boston. Or trying to, anyway. It’s been a long day. Her feet are killing her. And her first few attempts at hyping an interview with Charles Murray, the controversial academic who’s currently promoting his new book on libertarianism, haven’t gone particularly well.
After several tries, though, she nails it. “That was warmer,” says a voice in the control room. “That was very nice.”
She sighs, visibly relieved at getting a break from the unblinking eye of the lens.
Rooney, the former news director of WCVB-TV (Channel 5), may be a respected newswoman, but the debut of Greater Boston last week showed that her transition to an on-camera role is going to take some time. And if Rooney and Greater Boston are struggling to find their voice, so, too, is WGBH.
This is, after all, the first significant foray into local public-affairs programming for WGBH (Channels 2 and 44, plus a radio station) since 1991, when it canceled The Ten O’Clock News. The new show is a huge improvement over the one it replaces, The Group, an unmoderated roundtable discussion that rose from the ashes of the News. (“A tawdry, pathetic little show,” huffs one industry observer of The Group, widely derided as “The Grope.”) Still, Greater Boston is going to need some work. Week One’s topics, which included the Super Bowl and cute animals, were too light and fluffy to qualify the show as a must-watch. And Rooney, who doubles as Greater Boston‘s executive editor, needs to overcome her on-the-set jitters.
It’s crucial that ’GBH get it right. With commercial broadcasters in full retreat from serious news and public affairs, public-broadcasting stations are the last redoubt. Boston’s two major public stations — WGBH-TV and WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) — are among the most admired in the country. It’s by no means clear, however, that the people who run those stations are willing or able to fill the gap created by the commercial stations’ retreat into sensationalism and frivolity. Continue reading “Flashback: Emily Rooney and public broadcasting in 1997”→
Washington Post executive editor Martin Baron has rejected a demand by a group of left-leaning activists that the Post more fully disclose Amazon.com’s business dealings with the CIA.
Nearly 33,000 people have signed an online petition put together by RootsAction, headed by longtime media critic Norman Solomon, to call attention to Amazon’s $600 million contract to provide cloud services to the CIA. The Post’s owner is Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon. Here is the text of the petition:
A basic principle of journalism is to acknowledge when the owner of a media outlet has a major financial relationship with the subject of coverage. We strongly urge the Washington Post to be fully candid with its readers about the fact that the newspaper’s new owner, Jeff Bezos, is the founder and CEO of Amazon which recently landed a $600 million contract with the CIA. The Washington Post’s coverage of the CIA should include full disclosure that the sole owner of the Post is also the main owner of Amazon — and Amazon is now gaining huge profits directly from the CIA.
Baron, in his response, argues that the Post “has among the strictest ethics policies in the field of journalism, and we vigorously enforce it. We have routinely disclosed corporate conflicts when they were directly relevant to our coverage. We reported on Amazon’s pursuit of CIA contracts in our coverage of plans by Jeff Bezos to purchase The Washington Post.” Baron goes on to point out that the Post has been a leader in reporting on the National Security Agency and on the CIA’s involvement in the Colombian government’s fight against an insurgency, writing:
You can be sure neither the NSA nor the CIA has been pleased with publication of their secrets.
Neither Amazon nor Jeff Bezos was involved, nor ever will be involved, in our coverage of the intelligence community.
The exchange between RootsAction and Baron highlights the conflicts of interest that can arise when wealthy individuals such as Bezos buy in to the newspaper business. It’s a situation that affects The Boston Globe as well, as its editors juggle the lower-stakes conflict between John Henry’s ownership of the Globe and his majority interest in the Red Sox.
Baron himself is not unfamiliar with the Red Sox conflict, as the New York Times Co., from whom Henry bought the Globe, owned a minority stake in the team and in New England Sports Network, which carries Red Sox games, during most of Baron’s years as Globe editor.
The way the Globe handled it during those years was just about right: don’t disclose in sports stories, but disclose whenever the paper covers the Red Sox as a business. Current Globe editor Brian McGrory has insisted that Henry will not interfere. Henry, in a speech before the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce last week, said he would not breech the wall of separation between the Globe’s news operations and its business interests.
Of course, it’s not as though the era in which news organizations were typically owned by publicly traded corporations was free of such conflicts. (The Times Co., after all, is a publicly traded corporation, though the Sulzberger family calls the shots.) Media critic Danny Schechter noted in his book “Embedded: Weapons of Mass Deception” that MSNBC — then in its pre-liberal phase — was a cheerleader for the war in Iraq even as its then-corporate parent, General Electric Co., was a leading military contractor.
But the rise of a new breed of media moguls such as Bezos, Henry and Aaron Kushner of the Orange County Register, who buy their way into the news business with their own personal wealth, seems likely to bring the issue of conflicts to the fore. The same is true of a media entrepreneur of a different sort — eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who is launching an online venture called First Look Media with (among others) the journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras.
It is the very fact that these individuals have been successful that makes them such intriguing players in the quest to reinvent the news business. But disclosure and non-interference need to be at the forefront of their ethical codes.