Documentary filmmaker Danny Schechter reflects on a dangerous turn in the media
When I first contacted Danny Schechter and asked him if I could interview him, I was not yet sure precisely what theme to pursue in my questions. After seeing his documentary, “WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception,” it became clear that “What Makes Danny Run?” was the perfect approach to our discussion.
The conference room where I waited for Schechter at Globalvision, the company that he and Rory O’Connor, his longtime business partner, own and run, was filled with awards and plaques honoring a lifetime of work. A George Polk and a couple of Emmys captured my notice along with a plaque from the city signed by former Mayor David Dinkins.
“WMD” played in New York earlier this year for only a week. For those of us lucky enough to have seen it, the courage and humanity that have gone into Schechter’s work for the past 40 years was clear. He has been committed to journalism in its various media.
Danny Schechter was late, but when he sat down to talk to me, it was plain that he was in pain—because of a pinched nerve in his shoulder—and needed to speak quickly and to get back to his desk where scripts of all kinds awaited his attention. The next day he was off to Hawaii to show his film and had too much to do before leaving to waste any time.
Schechter is now in his 60s and looks a little worn out and yet seriousness rests in him, coupled with a genuine kindness. He is a careful man, in that he takes pains to not misrepresent himself, the values he holds dear or how he feels about what has happened to this country because of the loss of our most trusted vehicle for keeping democracy alive—the media. It wouldn’t be fair to put words into his mouth or to let the idea circulate that he blames the media for everything that is wrong with our country today. But it is accurate to say that because he has worked in every form of media, he has a perspective on how it has been degraded and debased that those without that kind of experience cannot articulate with the same authority.
Daily and single-handedly, Schechter puts out a blog, one of the best, at NewsDissector.org. It is like reading an entire newspaper that arrives in your mailbox every morning from wherever his travels have taken him. The blog is not a top- down kind of paper; Schechter calls his work citizen journalism. He encourages his readers to respond to the topics he has chosen for the day culled from publications all over the world.
Schechter and I began our discussion by my asking why his documentary wasn’t igniting the airwaves. Why hadn’t it sparked a debate on how our media sold us the war on Iraq? In a low voice that held back some of his laughter at the obvious bind the media finds itself in, he explained that having been willing conspirators in getting us into this mess, media leaders of course are not going to applaud or participate in a critique of their handiwork.
Listening to Schechter talk was like walking into a room where a seminar has been going on for several years. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t there when the course began. No matter when I might have entered the room, there was always going to be something fascinating to learn. The man bleeds the news; he is able to articulate the issues in their fullest context and while he is talking, you can hear how respectful of people he is as well. He won’t bash anybody, no matter what his private thoughts are; critical comments about people are not part of his discourse.
When I asked him what made him make the documentary, he clearly listed his reasons. He began by saying that the reasons he had gone into journalism in the first place, as a high school student in the Bronx working on the school paper, are no longer valid. He uses the following description over and over to explain what has happened with the media: “What we have today is an incredible manipulation of peoples’ ideas, a master narrative that is meant to shape how we should think, what we should even think about which causes a debasing of information.”
In the days when Schechter (and I) came of age, men like Izzy Stone, the iconoclastic investigative journalist, could read The New York Times from cover to cover and find most of what needed to be looked at of the world’s news. Stone often talked about how easy it was to access, just from The Times, what was really going on, even if you had to go to the back of sections to see it all.
Schechter’s intention in his documentary was to get the people involved in reporting the war and those involved in selling it to us to speak their minds. He let them speak without much commentary by him at all. I don’t mean to suggest that his film is like the great documentaries of Frederick Wiseman. Schechter most definitely participates in the storytelling, but almost as the Everyman who wakes up to find the world at war and needs to investigate what happened and why. As the story of the war unfolded, it became quite clear how the “news” wasn’t news any longer but had become this new word—“militainment.”
Schechter laughed about how in the past Americans used to say with great hubris that we weren’t like those other guys, meaning the Soviets, because of course we had a free press, while they were shackled with a state-run media. We lived in a democracy after all where freedom of the press was not just valued but protected. Now, he points out, we may not have a state-run media but we certainly have a state-influenced media.
The media coverage of the war in Iraq “is despicable if not criminal because they are purposely misleading the country,” he argued, but it marks not only the death of journalism, but is also telling about the state of our democracy, and our efforts to bring democracy elsewhere.
“How,” he asked, “can we say that the elections in Iraq were a win for democracy when a true democracy is more than just voting but having a civic life where issues can be discussed and debated? The candidates in those elections were unknown and unable to discuss their platforms.”
Schechter showed a bit more of the fire in him when he turned to discussing how the American media betrays a portion of taxpayers and voters in our civic society—the gay community—and allows the discourse to become slanted and distorted in order to pander to a small, select faction. He made clear that his views on the media “selling of the war” provides a metaphor for understanding how the country is organized and run today.
He focused for a moment on how the media played along on the issue of gay marriage during the last election, losing its moral compass in the bargain. He became very passionate, his voice taking on even deeper resonance. He expressed disappointment that the press allowed gay and lesbian couples seeking marriage rights to be distorted into cartoons—buffoons or creeps expendable in order to sell a presidency to the electorate.
Schechter is concerned that the gay community is content with identity politics, which he likens to trade workers just asking for more, rather than detailing an agenda supportive of the vast complexity of our world. He talked about the real environmental crisis being the cultural environment in which we live and how that is at risk now and he questioned whether debates among gays are leading to solidarity and community or to further splintering and isolation. Schechter urged the gay community to consider whether its common interests can form the basis of an opposition party that refuses to let the powers that be, whether Republican or Democrat, continue robbing us of our intrinsic worth and our rights because of media misrepresentation and the current administration’s agenda.
Danny Schechter offers a compelling perspective on today’s world that comes through clearly in his recent documentary and his daily blog. Listening to him, it became clear that in his dissent he is not running away from anything but toward the American people, to bring us the news. He is an authentic messenger and the nation ignores his warnings at itS peril.
To order a copy of Danny Schechter’s documentary “WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception,” visit wmdthefilm.com.