We speak with two close colleagues and friends of the pioneering author, filmmaker and media reform activist Danny Schechter, who died last week of pancreatic cancer at the age of 72, and play excerpts from different points in his career. In one interview, Schechter explains how he got his start as “The News Dissector” on Boston’s WBCN radio in the 1970 and garnered fans such as Noam Chomsky. Schechter went on to work as a television producer at ABC’s 20/20, where he won two Emmy Awards, and at the newly launched CNN. He wrote 12 books, including The More You Watch, the Less You Know. He was also a leading activist and journalist against apartheid in South Africa, who left the corporate journalist world to make six documentaries about Nelson Mandela and produce the groundbreaking television series “South Africa Now,” which aired on 150 public television stations in the late 1980s and early 1990s at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle. We broadcast exclusive excerpts from the show, which has been newly digitized by Yale University, and speak with South African filmmaker Anant Singh, who worked with Schechter on the feature film Mandela: Long Walk Home; and Rory O’Connor, who co-founded Globalvision with Schechter and worked with him for decades.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: “Sun City” by Artists United Against Apartheid, a group formed in 1985 by musician Steven Van Zandt and record producer Arthur Baker to protest apartheid in South Africa. Danny Schechter was heavily involved in that project. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
Today we spend the rest of the hour remembering the pioneering author, journalist, filmmaker, media reform activist, Danny Schechter. He died last Thursday of pancreatic cancer at the age of 72. Danny got his start and his famous moniker, “The News Dissector,” on Boston’s WBCN radio in the ’70s. Fans of the show include Noam Chomsky, who told Common Dreams, quote, “No one who was in Boston during the days of ‘Danny Schechter Your News Dissector’ can ever forget the exhilaration of those marvelous broadcasts, their enlightenment and insight and humor, often in dark days, a legacy that Danny left behind him when he went on to a remarkable career of critical analysis and breaking through media and doctrinal barriers,” Chomsky said.
This is a clip from the biopic, A Work in Progress: Danny Schechter and the Journalism of Change—Chronicling a Media Life in the Trenches from the Sixties to 60. Danny Schechter explains how he got his nickname.
DANNY SCHECHTER: I got involved in the underground newspaper movement. And from there, by accident and by chance, I got an opportunity to work at WBCN radio, and later, when the news director left, took his job.
Right here on WBCN, Boston. This is Your News Dissector, Danny Schechter, for…
I became “The News Dissector” when one of the deejays, who I was writing the news for, told me he couldn’t read what I had written, and I should read it myself. And then he had to go to the toilet, so I was thrown on the air, and he introduced me: “And now, ladies and gentlemen, the news inspector, the news digester, the news dissector.” “News dissector,” that sounded pretty unique and good, so I basically latched onto it, and I’m still known as “The News Dissector” in journalism all around the world, and now write a blog under that name.
The president insists that the Watergate exposures prove the validity of the American system, which is like saying that medicine proves the validity of disease, that radiation proves the validity of cancer. To make a just society requires more than a punishment of wrongdoers. Not indictments, not resignations, not even an impeachment can do that. Watergate is a symptom…
PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: There can be no whitewash. There can be no whitewash at the White House.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from A Work in Progress, produced by Marie Sullivan and billed as a Danny Schechter “self-dissection.” Danny went on to work as a television producer at ABC’s 20/20, where he won two Emmy Awards, and at the newly launched CNN. He wrote 12 books, including The More You Watch, the Less You Know. He was also a leading activist and journalist against apartheid in South Africa, making six documentaries about Nelson Mandela and producing South Africa Now. To pursue his anti-apartheid work, he left corporate media to lead MediaChannel.org and Globalvision with Rory O’Connor, who will join us in a minute. At Globalvision, they produced the groundbreaking television series, South Africa Now, which was broadcast on over 150 public television stations in United States and 16 other countries, including Mozambique. This is a clip from the opening of the show in November of 1990.
We’ll play that clip in a moment. Again, Danny Schechter died Thursday at the age of 72. In January, he had just published a new book, titled When South Africa Called, We Answered: How International Solidarity Helped Topple Apartheid.
Well, we remember his work today with two of his closest friends. But first, we’re going to go to the beginning of South Africa Now.
SOUTH AFRICA NOW ANNOUNCER: Globalvision presents the television newsmagazine of Southern Africa—news, views, frontline focus, in-depth analysis, covering the coverage, cultural features. This week, South Africa Now reports these stories. Remember the song “Sun City”? It was about the homeland of Bophuthatswana, the scene of newly reported human rights abuses. We’ll explain.
UNIDENTIFIED: I mean, if you look at Bophuthatswana, it’s a mirror of South Africa. And democratic functioning doesn’t exist at all in that government.
SOUTH AFRICA NOW ANNOUNCER: Covering South Africa, ABC News blasts Nelson Mandela. We’ll dissect the report.
ABC NEWS: While things like a new constitution and the right to vote are vital concerns, they sometimes seem secondary to more urgent needs.
SOUTH AFRICAN WOMAN: Nobody’s helping us.
ABC NEWS: Not even the man such high and perhaps unrealistic hopes were pinned on.
SOUTH AFRICA NOW ANNOUNCER: And in our culture section, from Zimbabwe, the sounds of the Bhundu Boys. All of these stories and more on South African Now But first, the uncensored news with Thandeka Gqubule and Philip Tomlinson.
AMY GOODMAN: Again, that was the beginning of the South Africa Now program that people watched on public television around this country and in many different countries around the world.
Rory O’connor is with us here in New York, co-founder of the TV and film production company Globalvision with Danny Schechter, where they made the TV series, South Africa Now, and another one called Rights & Wrongs: Human Rights Television, as well as many documentaries about Nelson Mandela, including Mandela in America.
And in Durban, South Africa, Anant Singh is with us, highly acclaimed South African filmmaker, who has produced more than 80 films, including the feature film, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, in 2013, based on Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. He brought Danny Schechter to South Africa to produce a behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of that film, and they worked together on other films, as well, including Countdown to Freedom, which documented the first democratic elections in South Africa, and A Hero for All Seasons, which they produced as a tribute to Mandela when he stepped down as president in 1999. Anant Singh is responsible for many of the anti-apartheid films made in South Africa, including Sarafina!, which tells the story of the 1976 Soweto uprisings and stars Whoopi Goldberg and Miriam Makeba, and Cry, the Beloved Country, starring James Earl Jones and Alfre Woodard. On Friday, Anant Singh remembered his friend, Danny Schechter, with an article published online, “A Tribute to Danny Schechter.”
Anant Singh and Rory O’Connor, welcome to Democracy Now! Anant Singh, first, your reflections on Danny Schechter’s life and career?
ANANT SINGH: Well, you know, he was a remarkable human being. And you’ve just captured the News Dissector moments as part of his early life on radio, but he was such a passionate person about radio and about telling stories and telling the stories with truth. And I think that was the thing that really captivated me. He was very humble and very passionate and very aggressively passionate in a way that I’ve never seen. And I think that he had such a joy in telling stories and being honest about it. And that was the beginning of it, and thereafter, we collaborated on so many things together. And to have Danny now gone and to have the legacy of all the material that he produced, whether it’s writing, on film, books, is a celebration of his life. And I think we should remember him for all of these many achievements that he contributed to liberation and democracy all around the world.
AMY GOODMAN: You had just spoken to him last Sunday, the Sunday before yesterday?
ANANT SINGH: Yes. You know, I was in New York on the 4th of this month, and he came over to a private screening I held of a film that I had just produced. He watched the film with me. We chatted about it. We talked about how he was feeling. You know, I did sense that he was in some pain, but you would never know it. You know, it was a miserable day in New York, and he wanted to come out and watch the movie, and then we chatted about his health. And he did indicate that he was having some difficulties. But, you know, he was always so upbeat. And, you know, on Sunday, I thought—you know, I had sent him a few emails. And he was always very quick to respond, and he hadn’t responded to an email in two days. And I just decided, let me give him a call. And I spoke to him, and it was a very quick conversation. And I sensed from that that he was in difficulties. But at the same time, my son was with me, and he’s 12, and he and my son had a very good relationship. And Kiyan had spoke to him also to say hi and wishing him well. So it was a very poignant moment when, on Thursday, we found out that he had passed on.
AMY GOODMAN: Rory O’Connor, your life and Danny’s have been intermeshed for decades. We just played that clip from South Africa Now, that public television watchers who watched in the ’80s and ’90s knew very well. Talk about, though, how significant that show being on public television was, the struggle for it to be there and what happened after.
RORY O’CONNOR: Well, it was a great struggle to get it on the air. And one of the first things that surprised us the most was that certain, let’s say, institutions that we thought would be supportive and would be our allies—for example, the Public Broadcasting System, PBS—instead rejected the program when we brought it to them, because it was avowedly anti-apartheid. So, the reaction that PBS gave to us was, “We can’t put this program on the air, because you’re not journalists. You’re advocates.” So right from the very beginning, we were branded with this scarlet A, if you will.
We didn’t see it that way. We saw it as struggle for liberation in South Africa. And let’s remember, you know, this was decades ago. There was a white minority racist regime that ran that whole country and was oppressing literally millions and millions of people. So we saw this as a great moral crusade, but we also saw it as a wonderful journalistic opportunity, a story that needed to be told, and that largely wasn’t being told, at least here in the West, by what’s now called the mainstream media. So we were moved to try and prod them.
You know, both Danny and I worked in the so-called mainstream media, he at ABC and CNN, as you mentioned. So we knew these places from the inside. And what we knew was that they responded much more to competition than to criticism. So rather than stand outside and criticize them, we decided, let’s start a program and do just a few shows to goad the networks into doing what they should have been doing already, which is covering this wonderful story.
AMY GOODMAN: And even if the network rejected it, more than 150 public television stations took it.
RORY O’CONNOR: Well, you know, as you know, I’m sure, from your own program and distribution, it is possible to circumvent PBS. It’s a lot easier to work with PBS if they’ll have you. But if they won’t have you, you still can go station to station, to the hundreds of public television stations.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the significance of the footage that you got from South Africa that no one saw anywhere else.
RORY O’CONNOR: Well, you know, again, we were on public television, and they had very high technical standards, right? And we were getting footage from all over the place. And one point I want to make very early on—
AMY GOODMAN: This is, of course, all during the period that Nelson Mandela is in prison.
RORY O’CONNOR: When we started the program, Nelson Mandela had been in prison for decades, literally, and had not been seen. So, also we had the problem of doing a television show with the leader of the liberation movement who nobody had seen him for literally more than 20 years.
There were a lot of challenges, though. One of the main ones is that we were not allowed into South Africa. We were banned. We could not get visas. So we had to figure out: How can we cover this country thousands of miles away that we can’t even get into? And so, we were forced by necessity into creating a new way of reporting. And it’s one that actually informed all of our work ever since. And it was what we call inside-out journalism. So we began sending cameras into South Africa, very cheap, not even professional video cameras. But we thought that some image, some picture, is better than no picture. And that’s what we ended up putting on the air, was footage that was shot by South Africans and then would be sent to New York, where we would put the program together.
AMY GOODMAN: The South African apartheid regime objecting every step of the way?
RORY O’CONNOR: Every step of the way. Now, there were many people—not, as I said, American broadcasters, but the Irish and the Scandinavians and the British were covering—the English were covering this on almost a weekly basis. We got footage from them. We also got a lot of support from people who worked for the mainstream American networks who were frustrated with the fact that the American networks were shooting a lot of footage but were not putting it on the air. And so, we got a lot of help from people on the sly, if you will.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Anant Singh, the digitized archive of South Africa Now has just been digitized by Yale University and now is residing in South Africa?
ANANT SINGH: That’s correct. And, you know, we want to have it as a platform to celebrate all of the content that was all banned in South Africa, as Rory has mentioned, and to be able to let South Africans have access to this, because I think that is what Rory and Danny wanted. And I think this was such an important part of our liberation, because it was a time when, again, as Rory said, the democracy of the world was not really interested in South Africa, but this content and the cultural boycott, all the things that you now know as daily information, was unavailable. And I think the show, South Africa Now, was a very important turning point to the awareness of what was going on in South Africa. So we’re very pleased that, one, Danny and Rory put this together, and, more importantly, that it is available today for people to know what really happened.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Anant Singh and Rory O’Connor, we have to break, but we’re going to come back and hear Danny Schechter confronting, or interviewing, Henry Kissinger. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Danny Boy” by Roy Orbison, one of the songs on Danny Schechter’s Partial Soundtrack of Life and Struggle. After he was diagnosed with cancer, pancreatic cancer, in 2014, he wrote, quote, “one of my first purchases was a new turntable to find comfort in some of the music that made up the soundtrack for a life now at risk. … I wanted to give something back by sharing some of the many songs that influenced me, kept me dancing, and echoed my joy and outrage.” And especially for radio listeners, you can go to democracynow.org and see the images we were just showing during “Danny Boy.” One of those pictures was Danny interviewing John Lennon and Yoko Ono. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to a clip when Henry Kissinger came to Boston to receive the World Peace Medal and Danny Schechter got an unexpected chance to interview him and kept the recorder rolling.
DANNY SCHECHTER: Do you have any regrets?
HENRY KISSINGER: Of what?
DANNY SCHECHTER: In general.
HENRY KISSINGER: No.
DANNY SCHECHTER: Any confessions?
HENRY KISSINGER: I am at peace with myself. But my confessions will take too long.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Danny Schechter trying to interview Henry Kissinger. Rory O’Connor, explain that moment.
RORY O’CONNOR: Yeah, I was actually there at that moment. I remember it as if it were yesterday. Danny and I, outraged, had gone to this event where Henry Kissinger was receiving a peace award from the World Affairs Council. Of course, given the tenor of the times, it was impossible for any of the press to get near Dr. Kissinger. The rest of the press was huddled by the front door trying to hear what they could. Danny and I gave up, and we went to the back door, and we started talking with the Secret Service agents there, who had just come back from Jamaica, which is a place that Danny and I traveled too many times and we loved. And all of a sudden, out of the back door pops Henry Kissinger to avoid all the press—right in front of us, as close as you and I are now.
Danny, one thing I must say, was the most quick-on-his-feet person that I ever knew. That was one of his great strengths. So, when Kissinger popped out, Danny spread his arms and said, “Dr. Kissinger!” in this wonderfully warm and welcoming tone. So Kissinger came, to my astonishment, and bear-hugged Danny. I was standing right behind him. And then, as you heard, Danny, who, by the way, was miked, live, said, “Dr. Kissinger, tell me, do you have any regrets?” So at that point Kissinger suddenly realized what was going on, and he said, “Well, why would I have regrets?” Danny said, “Well, I don’t know. Chile?” As Kissinger looked at me, I said, “Vietnam?” And the rest, you heard. And the important thing is that we immediately went to the phone booth, called Charles Laquidara on WBCN, broke into the morning show that he did, and had a worldwide exclusive interview with Dr. Kissinger talking about how culpable he was.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn back to 2011, when I bumped into Danny Schechter at Occupy Wall Street. He was holding a sign. This is a clip of that interview.
AMY GOODMAN: I think I see Danny Schechter in the crowd, with a major poster he’s got there and a T-shirt that says, “We love TV.” This is Danny Schechter, The News Dissector. The corporate media has been very quick to ridicule, to mock, to show the face of the clown, to tear apart what people are saying, or more importantly, to say there’s no message. What do you think is the message here?
DANNY SCHECHTER: Well, first of all, the initial reaction: Ignore it, you know, basically, and it will go away. Then, after the police arrested people, suddenly they determined there was a story and began covering it, first by ridiculing people. But now, more reluctantly, you find The New York Times and others writing editorials supporting what’s happening here, editorial writers saying, you know, they’re impressed by the sincerity of the people here. So the media attitude has changed.
Now, Fox has been, you know, beating up on these people. And there’s a good reason for it: They realize it’s effective. I don’t think they would go into attack mode the way they have if they thought this was something that could be ignored. And so, obviously, the longer this goes on, the more people who turn up, the more people support them, the more interest there is in the issue.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Danny Schechter in 2011 at Occupy Wall Street, holding a major sign. He would then produce his book, Plunder: Investigating Our Economic Calamity and the Subprime Scandal [published in 2008]. You also made a film along those lines. Rory, you worked with him on this?
RORY O’CONNOR: Well, yeah, I worked with Danny on the predecessor film to that, In Debt We Trust: America Before the Bubble Burst. And that was a film that came out in 2006, before the bubble burst in 2008. So, one of the amazing things about Danny was the breadth of what he was involved in, the issues he tackled, beginning with Chile and Vietnam, working with me with Bosnia and human rights, later the American economy, which he was absolutely prescient about. But the other thing that really informed his work and our work at Globalvision throughout is his belief that whatever the story is that you’re working on, the other story is always the media story. And so, that was a big through line, starting with South Africa Now and through all of his work, is whatever he was looking at, we always looked at the media piece, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: And I want to ask you about the last work he didn’t finish, which apparently now is a book on cancer. But before I do, Anant Singh, his legacy for South Africa?
ANANT SINGH: Well, you know, it’s so important that in 1967 he made his first trip to South Africa. And Albert Lutuli, who was the head of the ANC, had just died, and he decided he was coming to that funeral. And so, if you look back at all those years and to this day, you know, that amazing commitment that he had to our country and its people was not, in my opinion, enough credited. But I think that he was always, whether it was pre-democracy and post-democracy, so much in love with our country, and that was really something, I think—as his daughter Sarah said, his first love was New York, but then he became in love with South Africa. And I think we, as South Africans, a free South Africa, owe a huge debt to him.
And, you know, as you were—as we were talking about the Henry Kissinger moment, I was with him at the inauguration of Nelson Mandela. And he has that ability to just command the moment. And we met Yasser Arafat. We met Fidel Castro. And all of these people, he put onto film for that documentary. But adding to that were issues, like AIDS, and we did a documentary together on Nkosi Johnson, a nine-year-old boy who was inflicted with AIDS, and his journey. So, it really traversed not only political issues, but also anything that he felt passionate about. So, I think, as we remember Danny, we must not only think about South Africa, but the many things that he was always involved in, always being alert.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Rory, we just have 10 seconds, but he was working on a book on dealing with cancer.
RORY O’CONNOR: Right to the very end. He was protean figure. He produced more media than major networks could do and thousands of people. And to the very end, he was documenting his life and working on a book on cancer, that will be coming out soon on ColdType.net.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll link to all our interviews with Danny Schechter. Thank you so much, Rory O’Connor, here in New York, and Anant Singh in South Africa.