Journalist-activist Winona LaDuke honored with fifth annual DANNY Award

Winona LaDuke. Photo (cc) 2014 by Sustainability at Portland State University.

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.

Among her many previous honors and awards, LaDuke was chosen by Time magazine as one of America’s 50 most promising leaders under 40 years of age; won a Reebok Human Rights Award and a Thomas Merton Award; was named the Ms. Magazine Woman of the Year for her work with Honor the Earth; and has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

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 Global Center
P.O. Box 677
New York, NY 10035
Contact Rory O’Connor: roc@globalvision.org

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Danny Schechter’s legacy and the passion of Julian Assange

Danny Schechter in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Photo (cc) 2009 by Dan Kennedy.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

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.

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Anti-hate activist wins award named for Danny Schechter

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.

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Jose Antonio Vargas wins first Danny Schechter Award

Danny Schechter
Danny Schechter

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.”

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.

Rory O’Connor reviews “The Wired City”

Veteran progressive journalist Rory O’Connor has written a favorable review of “The Wired City” for the Huffington Post. He writes:

When we as a democratic society are at what Kennedy accurately calls “a historical moment when nonprofit media — supported by foundations, donations, and, indirectly, taxpayers, since contributions are tax-deductible — are in many cases more stable than for-profit media,” his book offers a valuable window into one possible future….

Researching his book, Kennedy concludes, “left me profoundly optimistic about the future of journalism.” Reading it will do the same for you.

O’Connor, an old friend, is, among many other things, the author of “Friends, Followers, and the Future: How Social Media are Changing Politics, Threatening Big Brands, and Killing Traditional Media.” I interviewed him about  his book for (sniff) the Boston Phoenix last May.

Standing up for freedom of the press in Kazakhstan

Screen Shot 2013-01-07 at 8.31.55 AM
Click to watch documentary at Al Jazeera English

Yevgeniya Plakhina, a young media activist from Kazakhstan whom I met at a conference in that country’s largest city, Almaty, in 2009, is asking supporters of free and independent journalism to sign a petition on behalf of her former newspaper, Respublika. She writes:

Unfortunately, Kazakhstan is passing through “Turkmenization” phase, and after events in Zhanaozen where local police opened fire at peaceful demonstration our government tries to close down all the remaining critical media (please, find details in the text of the petition), including Respublika newspaper where I used work for several years. We are seeking support from our colleagues overseas to demonstrate solidarity with Kazakh journalists. If you can, please, sign or share this petition (http://chn.ge/12y7BWW) with your colleagues, maybe they’ll be willing and able to support us. Thank you for your help!

You can learn a lot more about media repression in Kazakhstan by watching a documentary about Respublika, “The Fight to Publish” (above), which was broadcast last spring on Al Jazeera English. Among other things, you’ll see a Respublika journalist covering shootings in Zhanaozen.

Despite my skepticism that any more than a handful of people are going to watch the new Al Jazeera America, this is why it’s important that it be available — as old friend Rory O’Connor points out in the Huffington Post.

Rory O’Connor to read from his new book

Backscratching Day festivities continue with my interview at thephoenix.com with old friend Rory O’Connor. The occasion is O’Connor’s excellent new book, “Friends, Followers and the Future: How Social Media are Changing Politics, Threatening Big Brands and Killing Traditional Media,” published by City Lights.

O’Connor will appear on Tuesday, May 22, at 7 p.m. at the Brookline Booksmith to talk about his book and sign. His book grew out of a semester he spent a few years ago at Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center after stepping down as editorial director of NewsTrust. The idea behind NewsTrust was that an online community could identify and evaluate journalism with respect to sourcing, fairness and the like. Unfortunately, O’Connor discovered that too many of the people who joined NewsTrust were pushing a political agenda.

Among the more provocative ideas that O’Connor discusses in “Friends, Followers and the Future” is that Facebook is actually a fairly effective platform for sharing diverse sources of information, since members tend to cultivate a lot of “weak ties” with acquaintances whose political views and life experiences may be quite different from their own.

The larger issue, in O’Connor’s view, is trust. We no longer fully trust legacy media, whether it’s the New York Times or Fox News. Facebook, Google and other online services present their own trust issues. “But I’m optimistic,” he concludes, “that ultimately the ongoing digital information revolution will help us not only to trust, but also to verify.”

Rory O’Connor to talk about nuke book tonight

Friend of Media Nation Rory O’Connor will appear on “Greater Boston” this evening to talk with Emily Rooney about the 30th-anniversary edition of his book “Nukespeak: The Selling of Nuclear Technology from the Manhattan Project to Fukushima.”

As you can tell from the title, the book has been revised and updated. Co-written by O’Connor, Stephen Hilgartner and Richard C. Bell, it’s being published as an e-book by Sierra Club Books. You can find out more here.

The program begins at 7 p.m. on WGBH-TV (Channel 2).

Funding crisis hits MediaChannel

The MediaChannel, a nonprofit watchdog organization founded seven years ago, is in danger of going under by the end of June.

The organization was begun in 2000 by two former Boston journalists, Danny Schechter and Rory O’Connor. Schechter recently released a new documentary, “In Debt We Trust.” O’Connor is a founder of NewsTrust, a social network that rates news stories and organizations.

Here’s an excerpt from MediaChannel’s fundraising appeal:

“It is sad to have to shut down an important service in the public interest because our not-for-profit site can’t attract sufficient resources to support a very small staff or to pay necessary bills including rent, server fees and utilities,” said Danny Schechter, co-founder of the international web platform that launched February 1, 2000. “The ultimate irony is that MediaChannel has never been better — its traffic is up and its impact strong, as is the quality of its timely and diverse offerings, which include original reports, blogs, videos, features and media news from across the world.”

MediaChannel may not get as much attention as Media Matters for America, which also analyzes the media from a left-of-center point of view, but with a more partisan political edge. But it does good work, and it would be a shame if it disappeared.

Also banging the tin cup: Christopher Lydon’s excellent public radio program, “Open Source,” which lost its funding from UMass Lowell last year. Clea Simon has the update in Wednesday’s Globe.