Last Saturday, musician, actor and activist Steven Van Zandt paid homage to a fellow multimedia pioneer and a kindred spirit: Danny Schechter, who passed away March 19 at 72. “Danny loved causing trouble,” said Van Zandt. “He loved courting controversy, because that got you attention.”
The packed house inside Judson Memorial Church, there to celebrate Schechter’s life and legacy, laughed as “Little Steven” told how he and Schechter had collaborated in 1985 on the then-cutting-edge video for “Sun City,” an album protesting apartheid in South Africa that featured more than 50 musicians. Van Zandt had been to South Africa, had seen how grim it was on the ground there and wanted to do something about it. He had heard about some activist journo producer known as the “News Dissector,” who had ties to the anti-apartheid movement. “I thought he’d tell me it was a crazy idea,” remembered Van Zandt. “Instead Danny said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
If you watch the “Sun City” video now, looking past the sea of unfortunate ‘80s-era hairstyle choices, you’ll see everyone from Van Zandt’s musical compadre Bruce Springsteen to Miles Davis to Lou Reed, Joey Ramone, George Clinton and Run DMC joining in. Nobody but Schechter would have had the vision, chutzpah, cred and connections to bring all those musicians together — and get MTV to play it.
It was vintage Schechter, but hardly an isolated moment. From its beginnings, the News Dissector’s career was a multiplatform affair. He played pivotal roles in the birth of everything from alternative FM radio to CNN, to music videos, as well as muckraking documentaries and TV series. An early adopter of small-format cameras, the Web and social media, Schechter managed to win accolades from around the globe as his generation’s acerbic, insightful, spot-on media critic. He wrote more than a dozen books, featuring such knowing titles as “The More You Watch, the Less You Know” and “WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception.” Some of these books became documentaries.
When I first encountered Schechter in the late 1980s, he was an Emmy-winning producer at the ABC newsmagazine “20/20,” ready to go rogue. Profiles he did of Tina Turner’s first revelations of abuse at the hands of her ex-husband Ike, and of a reclusive Bob Dylan on the balcony of his Malibu retreat, are the stuff of TV news legend. Granted, “20/20” was a cushy producer gig, but Danny was not hardwired for network news. As his daughter, Sarah Schechter, said at the memorial, her father needed “to shine a light on the corners of the world” of the oppressed so often neglected by the mainstream.
So along with Rory O’Connor, another network news refusenik, Schechter formed the independent production company Globalvision. With next to no money, they launched a weekly series dubbed “South Africa Now,” which they then fought to get on public TV station by station. This was at the height of the struggle against apartheid. Using all sorts of stealth methods, Schechter and crew were a true guerrilla TV unit, reporting in a way that presaged the aggressive participatory video journalism of Vice by a couple of decades.
Long before we met, I knew about Schechter from his days as News Dissector on then-pioneering Boston rock station WBCN. For legions of baby boomers, many of whom went on to be movers and shakers in media and politics, the News Dissector’s reports were a must-listen, groundbreaking in their savvy integration of news and music.
Schechter segued from radio to TV stints in Boston, first at WGBH, followed by a stretch at WCVB, where he was executive producer of a late-night show, “Five All Night/Live All Night, a kind of local “Saturday Night Live.” One infamous night, he booked the Boston New Wave band Human Sexual Response, which he cued to play an encore with lyrics unsuitable for MediaPost and so not fit for broadcast. That was his last night on that job. It would be one of many attempts to see how far he could push the mainstream media envelope.
“South Africa Now” came to a close with the end of apartheid. Globalvison’s follow-up was the news magazine “Rights & Wrongs: Human Rights TV.” The series was hosted by Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who noted at the memorial that PBS declined to fund it because “human rights was not a valid organizing principle.” Others did not agree. Schechter was an early mastermind at getting socially conscious companies such as The Body Shop (in its pre-L’Oreal-owned days), to write Globalvision checks to appear on the right side of history.
Beyond his TV work, he made a slew of documentaries, often collaborating with Academy Award-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple, including one about South Africa. At the memorial, Kopple gleefully noted that she got to get a mike on the News Dissector’s pal, Nelson Mandela.
Churning out documentaries didn’t slow Schechter's output on other platforms. He very early understood the potential power of the Web and, along with O’Connor, launched MediaChannel.org more than a decade ago, quickly becoming the site's most prolific blogger. He was indefatigable, always searching for and finding the next right medium through which to reach the people.
That blazing trail sadly ended when Schechter lost his battle with pancreatic cancer at a most youthful 72. On the trip to the hospital that would be his last, he told Sarah that she’d better not leave his computer behind because he needed to post new stuff on his “Topic of Cancer” blog.
The arc of the News Dissector’s career, from radio, to TV, to the Web, embodied media everywhere. As his longtime collaborator O’Connor noted at the memorial, while announcing The Danny Schechter Global Vision Award for Journalism: “No matter what the story was, Danny always knew the media was the other story.”