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.