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.

Obama White House tramples on academic inquiry

Gerry Adams
Gerry Adams

This commentary was previously published at WGBH News.

Once again, the Obama White House has demonstrated its contempt for journalism and other forms of independent inquiry.

As we should all know by now, journalists do not have a First Amendment right to protect their anonymous sources. Following the same principle, academic researchers have no constitutional protection if they wish to keep secret the identities of people who provide them with evidence about serious crimes.

Thus it should be no surprise that U.S. District Judge William Young last year ordered Boston College to turn over parts of the Belfast Tapes, an oral-history project involving members of the Irish Republican Army. Those tapes led to the arrest Wednesday of Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, who has been accused of involvement in the notorious 1972 murder of an innocent woman named Jean McConville. (Adams denies the charges.)

The struggle for Irish independence was a decades-long guerrilla war. All sides, including the British military, conducted themselves shamefully. When seeking a resolution to such horrors, the parties generally agree that reconciliation requires them to overlook acts that would never be tolerated in normal times. Nelson Mandela’s magnanimity in South Africa is the best-known example, but there are many others.

But the British government leaned on the White House, and Attorney General Eric Holder subpoenaed the tapes. There was little either BC or the courts could have done about it once Obama and Holder made up their minds to go along with British demands rather than stand up for free academic inquiry. As former lieutenant governor (and former BC trustee) Tom O’Neill puts it:

In the Boston College case, our “special relationship’’ with Britain is raising serious and troubling questions: Are we abridging academic freedom in ways that will prevent participants in major international issues from stepping forward with their stories? Is the British demand for documents, and its search for alleged wrongdoing, driven as much by the politics of Ireland today as it is by the search for justice for past crimes? And why, when both sides in the Troubles were guilty of so much wrongdoing, is the British prosecution seemingly intent on only pursuing crimes allegedly committed by only one side?

As the journalist Ed Moloney, a leader of the Belfast Tapes project, tells The Boston Globe, “The damage is done. The whole process of conducting academic research in the United States of America on sensitive subjects with confidential sources has been dealt a death blow by the Obama Department of Justice.”

Finally, I should note that the legal case involving the Belfast Tapes has been enormously complex and marked by enmity between Moloney and Boston College officials. If you would like to learn more, Beth McMurtrie wrote a long piece earlier this year for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Some worthwhile online videos about Nelson Mandela

Since learning of Nelson Mandela’s death a few hours ago, I’ve watched:

  • The New York Times’ excellent video overview of his life.
  • The speech he gave after his release from prison.
  • A report from WGBH-TV’s old “Ten O’Clock News” on Mandela’s 1990 visit to Roxbury.
  • A clip from an interview Mandela did with Bill Moyers in 1991.
  • And, for good measure, Artists Against Apartheid’s video for “Sun City.” Where else can you see Miles Davis, Lou Reed and Miami Steve in one (virtual) place?

What I haven’t watched is any television coverage. It’s a new world, isn’t it?

Nelson Mandela and Danny Schechter

Nelson Mandela has died at the age of 95. Few Americans know more about the great South African leader than Danny Schechter. Ironically, Schechter wrote about a new Mandela biopic earlier today.