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.
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.”
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?
Copyright © 1997 by the Phoenix Media/Communications Group. All rights reserved.
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”
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.
(Note: I first learned about the petition from Greg Mitchell’s blog, Pressing Issues.)
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.
News Dissector Danny Schechter retweeted this blog post by former British diplomat Craig Murray, who questions the notion that the Russian government warned the United States of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s radicalism in 2010.
I will confess that I know nothing about Murray. But what he writes is the simple truth about the official story: After raising a warning flag about Tsarnaev, Russia allowed him into the country in 2012 and let him stay for six months, then leave again. Murray’s gloss on those facts also seems worth thinking about:
In 2012 Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who is of such concern to Russian security, is able to fly to Russia and pass through the airport security checks of the world’s most thoroughly and brutally efficient security services without being picked up. He is then able to proceed to Dagestan — right at the heart of the world’s heaviest military occupation and the world’s most far reaching secret police surveillance — again without being intercepted, and he is able there to go through some form of terror training or further Islamist indoctrination. He then flies out again without any intervention by the Russian security services.
Murray adds: “That is the official story and I have no doubt it did not happen.”
The New York Times today reports on Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s time in Dagestan. This passage pretty much sums up the paper’s findings:
During his six months in Makhachkala [the Dagestan capital], according to relatives, neighbors and friends, he did not seem like a man on a mission, or training for one. Rather, they said, he was more like a recent graduate who could not quite decide what to do with himself. He slept late, hung around at home, visited family and helped his father renovate a storefront.
We are at the very beginning of what is likely to be a long investigation. But these reports are relevant at a moment when — as the Boston Globe reports — Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham are despicably calling for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to be treated as an “enemy combatant,” and when Republicans are already describing the Boston Marathon bombings as a breakdown in intelligence.
Not only do we not know that, but early indications are that such irresponsible speculation is not in accord with the facts.
Old friend Danny Schechter the News Dissector is seeking to revive the Media Channel, which not that many years ago tracked coverage by national and international news organizations from a progressive point of view. Schechter writes:
HELP MEDIA CHANNEL RETURN STRONGER THAN EVER
From: Danny Schechter, Your News Dissector, and Editor, Mediachannel.org
First, some not so good news.
Last spring, we woke up one morning to find that we could no longer access many of our domains including Mediachannel.org and NewsDissector.com, two well-known and respected websites that we launched in the year 2000 to provide a global platform for media analysis, criticism, debate, and activism. I’ll spare you the details of our externally created travails; it was an ordeal no one should have to go through!
But now …
With help from good friends, colleagues, and supporters, we have recovered our domains.
Finally, Mediachannel.org will be back!
We are rededicating ourselves to revitalizing the fight for media accountability and transparency, because every day, consolidated corporate media shapes our future by disseminating and reinforcing government and corporate propaganda. Too often, this mechanism inhibits social and political change by artificially restricting public debate, undermining democracy for the benefit of narrow interests, rather than strengthening it for us all.
Mediachannel.org will once again become a “one stop shop” for the best writing, reflections, and investigations on the power and impact of media in our world. We will name and shame dishonest journalism, feature stories on best practices, and showcase media resources. We know we have important information and analyses to share, and hope you will join or rejoin us.
Additionally, we will resume sending out our newsletter, Media Savvy, and my blog, News Dissector, recognized as Blog of the Year by the Hunter College Media Department in New York City, directly to your inbox, free of charge.
How You Can Help Mediachannel:
Please write to us at email@example.com and tell us:
- How do you think Mediachannel.org can be most effective?
- What do you think we should be covering and offering in this new media age?
- Which media websites do you find most useful and why?
If you can, please click here and help us by making a year-end tax-deductible gift.
Checks can be made payable to: The Global Center; P.O. Box 677 ; New York, NY 10035 (please note Mediachannel on the check).
Your support will enable us to finally get back into action, providing you with unique investigative journalism that spans the globe. As a token of my appreciation for any donation above $50, I will happily send you a copy of my latest eBook, “Dissecting the News and Lighting the Fuse,” published with help of Coldtype.net. This new 220-page book features updates of our best work along with new articles and essays. It is an exciting collection of timely dissections.
Thank you for your support over the years. We didn’t disappear voluntarily, and we know you will be pleased to read our latest reporting and commentary again regularly as a member of Mediachannel.org.
Editor and News Dissector
P.S.: I want to extend a special thank you to Rob Kall of OpEdNews.com, who rebuilt Mediachannel when our site was taken down, and Aaron Krowne of ML-Implode.com, for hosting Newsdissector.net.