Danny Schechter, filmmaker and outspoken media critic, dies at 72

Print More

Danny Schechter, a passionately progressive filmmaker and vocal media critic, died Thursday in New York City of pancreatic cancer. He was 72.

Schechter, known when he began his career in 1970 as “The News Dissector” on WBCN-FM in Boston, went on to become an award-winning producer. His filmography included six documentaries about South African leader Nelson Mandela.

Schechter also authored 12 books that reflected his ideals, including The Crime Of Our Time: Why Wall Street Is Not Too Big to JailThe Death of Media and the Fight to Save Democracy and When News Lies: Media Complacency and the Iraq War. He was a frequent guest on Democracy Now!

He founded MediaChannel.org, a media analysis site, in 1999 and dubbed himself its “blogger-in-chief.” Schechter frequently critiqued public television, focusing on specific shows as well as its larger vision and purpose. In a 2013 Media Channel column about PBS NewsHour, he wrote: “The news on PBS survived all these many years because of lavish funding from major corporate sponsors who felt comfortable with its stuffy and unthreatening approach.”

Schechter had a prickly relationship with PBS for years. He complained publicly that PBS turned down several of his programs for national distribution, including South Africa Now, created in 1988 in an effort to circumvent Pretoria’s ban on news coverage of anti-apartheid unrest; Rights & Wrongs: Human Rights Television _with host Charlayne Hunter Gault; and _Counting on Democracy: The Untold Story Of 175,000 Missing Votes in the 2000 Presidential Election, about the electoral irregularities in Florida. Several stations aired the shows despite PBS’s decision.

Schechter wrote in a Current commentary in 2002 that he and his production team:

. . . tried to get American Masters and American Experience to consider a film on America’s national treasure and leading economist John Kenneth Galbraith, whose voice needs to heard as the economy goes into the toilet. No, they prefer to do coffee table shows on Lucille Ball. Rejected! During the Gulf War we offered a real-time investigation about how the media were being managed — facts that all came out afterwards. No, PBS was doing The Civil War. Rejected! We did a pilot for a series with Nobel Laureate Eli Wiesel. Too intellectual. Rejected! We produced the first film on China’s Falun Gong Movement. The Society for Professional Journalists honored it with a prize for investigative reporting. It played on some stations but not through PBS. Rejected!

He added: “PBS is a land of niches and bailiwicks, a Japanese-style employment system topped with execs who seem to have cushy jobs for life if they play it safe. They are thus very risk-averse and barely accountable to the public in whose name they are paid.”

In a 1995 Current commentary, he exhorted PBS to reconstitute itself as “a citizens’ channel.” Public broadcasting “will not survive by kow-towing to demagogic politicians who pay lip service to democratic values while slashing funds for public institutions and stifling provocative programs,” he wrote.

Schechter was born June 27, 1942, in New York City. He graduated from Cornell University and received a master’s degree from the London School of Economics. He was a Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard University and an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

He was a producer for the ABC newsmag 20/20, where he won two Emmys, and part of the news team that started CNN.

“I’ve known Danny since he was on the radio in Boston and I was a student at Emerson,” Alyce Myatt, a former PBS programming executive, said in an interview. “Danny was unyielding in his efforts to bring factual storytelling to the public. And whether it was related to domestic issues or international issues, Danny was tireless.”

She added that Schechter was “an old-time journalist, finding and presenting facts as opposed to so many people who have an audience today to whom the facts are incidental.”

He is survived by his daughter, Sarah Debs Schechter, of Los Angeles; his brother, Bill Schechter, Brookline, Mass.; and nephews Jamie and Ethan Schechter.

A celebration of his life begins at 1 p.m. on his birthday, June 27, at Judson Memorial Church, 55 Washington Square South, New York City.

A Facebook memorial page is here.

Related stories from Current: