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News Dissector: Passions, Pieces and Polemics, 1960-2000

Overview

"As 'News Dissector' on Boston radio, Danny Schechter literally educated a generation..."
Noam Chomsky

"Danny Schechter, a kind of journalist without borders, has shaken up public broadcasting, among many other media institutions, in the course of his career as a self-styled 'News Dissector' and human rights advocate..."
The Nation

News Dissector brings together Schechter’s writings on human rights, politics, and the media over a span of four...

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Overview

"As 'News Dissector' on Boston radio, Danny Schechter literally educated a generation..."
Noam Chomsky

"Danny Schechter, a kind of journalist without borders, has shaken up public broadcasting, among many other media institutions, in the course of his career as a self-styled 'News Dissector' and human rights advocate..."
The Nation

News Dissector brings together Schechter’s writings on human rights, politics, and the media over a span of four decades of activism and reporting, including ten years in radio news reporting and twenty years creating television news and public affairs programs and independent documentaries.

These pieces provide a fascinating look at the trajectory of what was once simply called “The Movement” Allen Ginsberg, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, Abbie Hoffman, and other figures from the counter-culture and new left come alive in these pages. Schechter's run-ins with the FBI and the CIA provide facscinating and often entertaining reading. A large section covers Vietnam during and after the war. Throughout, Schechter exposes the practices and prejudices of the news media and proposes detailed corrective action. The collection also includes pieces of a more personal and sometimes emotional nature;the observations, impressions, and inspirations of a radical journalist. News Dissector is an enlightening book by one of the few journalists to emerge from the alternative media of the 60s and 70s with his politics and principals intact.

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Editorial Reviews

Nation
Danny Schechter, a kind of journalist without borders, has shaken up public broadcasting, among many other media institutions, in the course of his career as a self-styled News Dissector and human rights advocate...
Library Journal
From the 1960s to the present, Schechter has challenged the "Establishment" in a wide range of media. His work as a journalist and media critic encompasses print, radio, television, documentaries, and the web. (In The More You Watch, the Less You Know, for example, he critically analyzed the workings of television.) Schechter has been on both the inside and the outside of mainstream media, writing for Ramparts and producing for ABC's 20/20. This new collection pulls together selections of his writing on politics and the media. Arranged thematically, it includes sections on the Sixties, Vietnam, Africa, and the media, nicely illustrating the author's ideological development. Though occasionally self-indulgent, as when Schechter recounts his attempts to get copies of his CIA files, this volume will be a welcome addition to academic journalism collections seeking materials reflecting a left-wing perspective. An earlier edition of this work, including different materials, was published as an e-book by Electron Press. Judy Solberg, George Washington Univ. Lib., Washington, DC Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781888451207
  • Publisher: Akashic Books
  • Publication date: 6/1/2001
  • Pages: 300
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 11.30 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Danny Schechter is executive producer of Globalvision, a television and film production company, and executive editor of Mediachannel.org, a global media watchdog website. His writing on current events and media issues has appeared in The Boston Globe, Newsday, Village Voice, The Nation, Columbia Journalism Review, and many other publications. He is the author of The More You Watch, The Less You Know (Seven Stories, 1997) and Falun Gong’s Challenge to China (Akashic Books, 2000). He lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

nfiltrating City Hall

Assistant to the Mayor

1966/1998

It was 1966. I was an assistant to the mayor of Detroit, a “highly paid” apparatchik under a Ford Foundation fellowship for doctoral students in government. I was a doctoral candidate in the sense that the only academic program I could get into easily after being fired by the War on Poverty was a Ph.D. program at Syracuse University. I was avoiding the draft and they were prospecting for tuition money. I won the fellowship, in part because, when asked to name my party affiliation, I was the only applicant to list the insurgent Freedom Democratic Party of Mississippi. The head of the program liked that, and I was in.

Now I was helping to write speeches for Jerome P. Cavanagh, a young Kennedyesque public official known for his boyish looks and charismatic style. For the first time I was wearing a tie and jacket every day. I was working alongside ex–New York Times reporter Tony Ripley during the day, and by night keeping detailed notes on everything I saw. Nominally, I was “a participant observer”—although I had taken an oath of confidentiality as the price of access. But now, thirty-two years later, with the mayor long in the grave, I guess the statute of limitations has run out on that pledge.

Truth be told, I felt like Herbert Philbrick, of 1950s TV-show fame, who lived three lives—one as a member of the Communist Party, one as a Soviet spy, and the third as a counterspy for the FBI. I saw myself as a mole for the Movement, an agent of the other America who had somehow infilt rated the halls of power. These were the last days of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and Cavanagh was considered by some to be the most liberal big-city mayor in America. He was determined to insure that Detroit would not be another Watts. “Despite its long history of rancorous race relations,” Time magazine noted in 1965, “Detroit in recent years has been one of the few big northern cities to escape large-scale Negro rioting. The distinction was not won by accident—unless that accident is Jerome Ca vanagh.”

When other cities tried to turn away marches by Dr. King, Cavanagh invited him in and marched with him. King previewed his “I Have A Dream” Speech during Detroit’s “Great March to Freedom.” Cavanagh sounded like my kind of guy. I was interested in finding out what a city government could do for the people, and if the system could be made to work.

He only had a small team around him. His office worked on the entourage system. If you were in the entourage, you were in. If you weren’t, you wer en’t, no matter what your title was. Ripley was the staff liberal and sophisticate; Dick Strickhartz, the controller, the centrist numbers man, a law professor and key adviser; and Jim Trainor, the conservative Irish press secretary, an older, old-style, cigar-smoking newspaper editor close to the cops.

As for me, I was a freebie. Cavanagh was pleased to get an extra hand on deck for no charge. When I interviewed with him I was taken aback when he dropped phrases like “the real nitty-gritty.” He saw me coming. As did the Detroit News, which reported on my arrival, “For Free: SCHOLAR PUT ON MAYOR’S OFFICE STAFF” describing a twenty-three-year-old “scholar” as the new mayoral aide. “Other mayoral aides and secretaries refer to Schechter as the ‘intern.’”

So, years before Monica burst on the scene, there I was, without her “talents” or special access—“the intern” on a $500 monthly stipend from the National Center for Education in Politics. Later on, I was blown away by how many people, lobbyist and advocate types, approached me as if I had real power; they all wanted something, mostly the mayor’s ear. Soon I had a set of keys to the City-County Building for weekend work. When my used Ford got hit by one of the Motor City’s vehicle-crazed maniacs, the mayor gave me use of an old detective’s car from the motor pool, complete with an official X designation on the license plate, and the right to tank up in the municipal garage.

What Cavanagh and company didn’t know was that privately I was living a third life. I was living with a black woman at the time, who had no use for politicians of any kind, or interest in my scholarly pursuits. Her name was Mardell. She was beautiful, brassy, and bold—an R&B singer, a wannabe part of the Motown world. And could she siiiing! I never brought it up at the office. I didn’t think they would understand.

I had hooked up with her in Syracuse where a night of endearment turned into six months of shacking up. When we rolled into town, pulling a trailer loaded down with my books and records, we literally couldn’t find an apartment to rent. It was straight-out, in-your-face racism, which at that time cut across all ethnic lines.

We were a strange-looking couple of contrasting pigments, cultures, classes, and regions. She was poor, from the Deep South; I was working class, from the Bronx. Two incompatible accents if you ever heard them. She was foxy; I was funky. We ended up nesting in a tiny hole, in the back of a small transient building, at 186 East Grand Boulevard, a not-quite-safe ghetto neighborhood. I came to experience the underside of liberal Detroit when two cops threw me up against my car one night after I parked in the alley behind the house. They didn’t notice the mayor’s office decal on my windshield and just did their usual thing. One pulled a weapon, pointed it at me, and asked what the fuck I was doing in that part of town. No, I didn’t say “I live here motherfucker.” I yes-sirred them to death, and nearly pissed in my pants.

So while I worked with the governing elite downtown in the suites, I was never far away from the rage in the streets. In 1967, an incident like the one I experienced escalated into the worst riot in American history, virtually destroying large sections of town and whatever hopes the mayor had of creating a stable oasis of urban enlightenment. (Years later, after the riots, I went back and found the building I had lived in trashed beyond recognition.) Parts of Detroit have never recovered.

In those days the city was in the first or second stage of white flight. The suburbs were becoming a white noose around a deteriorating black inner city. The auto companies, along with a few banks and the economic aristocracy, kept the local economy humming. This was before they began to export jobs and build factories globally. I actually sat in on meetings between the mayor and the presidents of the Big Three automakers, and watched how the business community assured that the city government met its needs. Detroit was largely a blue-collar town, where many blacks held good jobs, drawing down lots of overtime. The ghettoes there, unlike Harlem, were tree-lined, but all the same problems were present. Black workers owned homes and late-model cars. A black middle class, the third largest in the country behind Atlanta and Washington DC, conspicuously displayed its wealth. Berry Gordy’s Motown sound of young America had become a booming business. A former autoworker, he was soon running a hit factory.

And the labor unions were powerful, especially the Detroit-based United Auto Workers. The UAW distrusted the mayor because he was not a Democratic Party stalwart. In those days, the union virtually ran the Party. Cavanagh had become mayor through a non-partisan election. He was a lawyer by training, young and cocky. He didn’t owe them his job and they couldn’t control him to their satisfaction. By the spring of ’66, Cavanagh wanted to move up, out of Detroit and onto the national stage.

He became the president of the National League of Cities and the Conference of American Mayors. He made the cover of Newsweek as the voice of Urban America, with a youthful, clean image that appealed as well to many Republicans. He had his eye on an open Senate seat. The polls showed he could beat the GOP in the general elections. But, first, he had to win the primary by whipping the UAW’s longtime booster, and virtual client, former four-term governor of Michigan and top Africa aide in the Kennedy Administration, G. Mennen (“Soapy”) Williams, known for his green bow ties and penchant for shaking the hand of every voter in the state. Williams was the establishment; Cavanagh, the insurgent. To translate it into today’s terms, Cavanagh was a Clintonite before his time; Williams an old-fashioned cold war liberal, a Hubert Humphrey Democrat and LBJ acolyte.

So there I was “working for the Man,” as my friends put it, and at the same time, getting a real inside lesson on the guts of big-time politics. How do you fight a deeply entrenched, liberal-sounding machine? The real Clinton would do what he has done, move to the right, align with middle-class values, while blowing smoke about putting people first. Cavanagh, aware of how the cities were then losing the guns-versus-butter-budget fight because of the billions shoveled into the Vietnam War, decided to go after Williams from the left, challenging his support for the war and calling for a cease-fire. He was the first elected official to take such a radical stance as early as 1966, and I was thrilled to work on his end-the-war policy paper and help with the campaign. His position was popular even if his campaign lacked adequate funds and enough troops.

I became an advance man, shooting off to smaller cities and towns throughout Michigan, organizing the mayor’s appearances. I’d call potential supporters, invite them to meet the mayor, and find venues for his talks. I felt like a hotshot political operative. I worked closely with a group of seasoned political consultants who functioned as hired guns for the campaign, advising on the nuts and bolts of building an organization. I took notes at all the strategy sessions.

Meeting, Hotel Pick Fort Shelby. April 13, 1966. Briefing on building the research operation. I will keep the consultants’ names to myself. Otherwise, here is a taste of some verbatim snatches.

C1: We want to talk frankly and candidly, and expect that much of what we say will stay in this room . . . I am a newspaperman and my partner is a lawyer . . . Our experience comes from working with Kefauver, the Johnson campaign, Bobby Kennedy, and Lindsay . . . First, you have to get all the available information about your opponent, ALL the available stuff . . .

C2: You need a Xerox machine. It is expensive but probably worth it . . .

C1: The first part of research is NEGATIVE research. This looks into everything Williams said and did. It must be exhaustive, thoroughly documented, authentic, accurate . . . (When you use this stuff, it is useful not to say anything directly but let others say it for you . . . )

C2: Political literature is very important, but is usually not read because it is uninteresting. Action photos are very important. It should be attractive.

Those quotes are from my notes. I was fascinated by this detailed planning, by just how scientific and organized campaign strategizing had become. What a contrast from our anarchistic New Left collective style of debate and consensus building. These guys were like football coaches, diagramming and running plays. This was not a bottom-up people’s movement, but a top-down marketing campaign, with the candidate as the product. We weren’t working with people, but on them.

The mayor is talking now:

One of the criticisms is that we are a slick group of guys trying to PR our way though the campaign. But we do have to get Soapy talking . . .

C1: We have to zing him and make him overreact. Make him talk. The best thing we can do is say something critical about Africa and make him patiently explain the subtleties of African policy . . . No one cares.

Mayor: [laughs] Even the Negroes don’t care about that.

Later there’s talk about giving the mayor a higher profile on civil rights:

Cl: Send a secret check for $100 to Richmond Flowers in Alabama [a civil rights advocate] . . .‘me and the wife were discussing this and thought it would be a good thing,’ and then leak it . . . deny it at first, and then admit it, play it down as a personal thing.

Mayor’s aide: Has he ever done anything like that?

Another aide [Sarcastically]: All the time, but we never knew about it . . . [Laughter]

I have no evidence that the mayor tried a stunt like that, but this snatch of conversation gives you a feel of how calculated and contrived politics in America had become. Cavanagh lost the primary, and then, just as we predicted, Williams was beaten in the general election. A Republican became Michigan’s second senator and stayed for what seemed like forever.

I didn’t. The politics of power and maneuver had become a game I didn’t want to play anymore, although I wasn’t half bad at it. My stint in the big show of mainstream politics was ending.

When the campaign was over, the mayor moved me as his “eyes and ears” into the local version of the War on Poverty, an oversized bureaucracy and pacification program, a place for patronage slushed with federal funds. I wrote long memos to the director pointing out that the program, Total Action Against Poverty, was not so total; in fact, not very effective at all. (From one my memos: “It is as if we are all straight men in a comic con-game because the money is in poverty this year.”)

It wouldn’t be for long. We didn’t know then but the real war, the one in Vietnam, had another nine years to run, while the poor were being poured into its service. Lyndon Johnson had no use for cease-fires in Asia, ours or anyone’s, and funds for the inner cities began to dry up. Within a year, parts of Detroit would look like Vietnam, and there would be soldiers in the st

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Table of Contents

Foreword 10
Introduction 12
Student Press Association Credentials 21
Pt. 1 Movement Days
Student Forum 25
What Is a Revolutionary? 26
Hoffa and Hazard 27
Discovering Harlern 32
Black Nationalism 37
Deep in the Heart of Harlem 39
Community Organizer 41
Infiltrating City Hall 44
Draft Board 50
Raising the Question 52
London Guerilla Force 57
Chicago Eight Attack 59
On the Beach 62
Hopes for the Future 1977 66
Pt. 2 Vietnam Vet
War Crimes 71
Going There 74
Saigon Christmas 79
Visit to a Liberated Zone 81
Saigon Briefing 87
Letter to the Editor 94
How the War Was Won 96
Operation Babylift 104
Ho Ho Ho: Hanoi for the Holidays 122
Pt. 3 I-Spy
The CHAOS Caper 133
Edited CIA Files 137
CIA File: Informant's Report 141
Letter from Mass. CLU 142
G-Men on My Tail 143
Spying on the FBI 147
Harvard and the CIA 149
The CIA and Journalism 159
Pt. 4 Engaging Africa
Africa Journal '67 165
From a Closed Filing Cabinet 169
Media Myopia 177
Visiting the New South Africa 188
Mbeki's Muddle 194
Pt. 5 Media Maker
Charles and Howard 203
A Letter to Newsweek 211
A Hidden Hand at PBS? 212
Snatching Defeat 217
P.S. CAA Redux 220
The Rights and Wrongs of Making Human Rights Television 223
The Conspiracy of Silence 231
What If? 242
Pt. 6 Media Critic
Dissecting the Tube 251
Helicopter Journalism 260
Uncovering the Press 268
Bosnia: A Failure of Journalism 272
Selling China 276
Watch Local, See Global 279
Don't Mess with Public Access 282
(Low) Power to the People 284
How to Change the Media 287
A Call from My Daughter 295
About the Author 302
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