Veteran journalist Danny Schechter's indictment of TV news is getting a cool reception from a defensive media. Just wait 'til they actually read the book.
By Clif Garboden
DECEMBER 1, 1997: What if somebody stuck a microphone in President Clinton's face and asked, "You promised your voters national health care and it never happened. Did you fail, or were you lying?"
The fallout isn't difficult to imagine. The president might not have a lot to say, but the reporter who threw the hardball would be deafened by the collective tsk-tsking from his or her colleagues. The media renegade would be pilloried on roundtables from CNN to PBS, get accused of everything from immaturity to unprofessionalism, and probably end up bagging groceries for a living because his station is co-owned by an insurance company. Still, it's a good question.
Something like that actually happened to journalist Danny Schechter back in 1977, when he was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard. It's a story Schechter has recalled fondly and often on the promo tour for his corporate media-bashing new book, The More You Watch, the Less You Know (Seven Stories Press). The Nieman Foundation was throwing itself a 40th anniversary party at the Museum of Science; Henry Kissinger was the featured speaker. The event was closed to the press, and the president of the Harvard Crimson, who was therefore picketing the occasion, passed Schechter a question to ask the former secretary of state. After a series of polite, innocuous queries from the audience, Schechter, who claims he hadn't even read the note he'd been slipped as he crossed the picket line, posed its contents to Kissinger: "How can you justify yourself to your own children after your policies caused six million deaths in Indochina?"
Kissinger stormed out; the scandalized assemblage accused Schechter of being rude and worse. But eventually, the story leaked. It was reported in the Crimson and later in the Globe, and Schechter's been dining out on his glorious gaffe for 20 years.
Danny Schechter is, of course, no stranger to outrage or to Boston media, having made a local legend of himself in the early '70s as the "News Dissector" at WBCN-FM, when the station was young, brash, loose, revolutionary, and not yet owned by the global economic giant (and defense contractor) Westinghouse/CBS. Schechter justified the "Dissector" nickname, coined by 'BCN DJ Jim Parry, by framing his reports in left-slanted analysis -- a kind of New Radio Journalism that had most mainstreamers puzzled, especially when it won awards. Emerging from an era when Boston's alternative youth culture made a hero out of anyone with a soapbox, Schechter's mix of solid reporting and advocacy (and the megawatt bully pulpit provided by 'BCN) catapulted him to local fame. Cab drivers, he gratefully reports, remember his name to this day.
Later, Schechter teamed up with Boston lawyer Joe Oteri (whose pet causes included marijuana-law reform) to produce an Emmy-winning syndicated talk show. He went on to help create Five All Night, Live All Night (the nation's first -- and certainly most out-of-control -- local all-night live entertainment show), and produced Chris Lydon's Ten O'Clock Snooze on WGBH-TV.
The More You Watch, the Less You Know is a 478-page manifesto/biography promoting Schechter's crusade to maintain, regain, or perhaps create a purity of reportage that, he argues, has virtually vanished from broadcast journalism in favor of shallow, homogenized, cost-effective, ratings-oriented, market research-driven "news as entertainment." He singles out the demise of investigative documentaries, the shame and sham of tabloid TV, and, above all, media-ownership mergers that put Orwellian control of information in the hands of a few like-minded, business-centric monopolies-in-waiting.
The anti-media screed has a familiar ring; others have made the case, and with more facts and figures to prove it. But Schechter's personal approach and insider perspective sets The More You Watch apart from more rigorously documented blows against the empire. (The book recently got a positive review in the New York Times.) His description of an ABC film editor's fall from favor over his refusal to work on a Barbara Walters puff piece about Rupert Murdoch teaches volumes by example, as do the accounts of his encounters with Ted Turner and firsthand observations that paint Big Media as more of a seat-of-the-pants enterprise than you might imagine.
Schechter dares to mount this assault while still working in a media environment that rewards and encourages selling out. To people who don't remember him from his reckless youth, the stance may seem a bit strange coming from someone who, by résumé appearances, spent a few nights under the enemy's sheets -- at Ted Turner's CNN and with ABC's 20/20, for example -- before defecting to independent video production.
But if Schechter doesn't realistically expect, say, Hugh Downs to ambush the president with embarrassing questions, he does believe broadcast news can be reformed from the inside.
"Not everything on television is bad," he says. "There are a lot of people out there doing very good work. . . . But Larry Gelbart [creator of the M*A*S*H TV series] was right when he called TV a 'weapon of mass distraction.' It's turned citizens into consumers, and along the way it's devalued political reporting and it's devalued social responsibility." That media model works hand-in-glove with conservative goals and turns liberals into victims of principle, Schechter asserts. "Progressives have submerged their ideology in the name of objectivity," he says. "The far right has no such problem."
Schechter currently works with Globalvision, a New York-based video production company he founded with Rory O'Connor, the onetime managing editor of Boston's alternative Real Paper and former news director of Boston cable's Neighborhood Network News.
Globalvision, 10 years old this November, specializes in the kind of documentary topics that fuel the right's stereotype of the liberal press. Its debut effort was South Africa Now, an Emmy-winning weekly news magazine tracking the struggle against apartheid, which ran on PBS and elsewhere from 1988 to '91. In 1993, Globalvision followed that with the series Rights and Wrongs: Human Rights Television, which surveyed international human rights issues. The company's other productions include editions of PBS's Frontline on such subjects as the BCCI scandal and the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, plus films on Nelson Mandela, the JFK assassination conspiracy, Timothy Leary, and war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. Globalvision's do-good/do-well philosophy has left Schechter straddling media camps -- one foot in the world of liberal/leftish ideology, the other planted somewhat uncomfortably in the commercial realm he vilifies in The More You Watch. (The Globalvision client roster includes CBS, CNN, Fox, Disney, Sony, Time Warner, Turner Broadcasting, Lifetime, and MTV.)
In Boston on his self-orchestrated book tour earlier this month, Schechter might have expected a warmer reception from his old colleagues. In retrospect, he acknowledges he probably isn't really without honor in his own land -- his Braintree Barnes & Noble appearance drew an unexpectedly strong turnout, and he got several invitations to come back for local media spots. But he does wonder aloud at the irony that "I got a better reception from David Brudnoy -- who was appreciative and respectful, even though he's supposed to be coming from the other end of the ideological spectrum -- than I did from WGBH."
Schechter is referring to a taped guest spot he did on Channel 2's Greater Boston, during which host Emily Rooney, after noting that The More You Watch is "a long book," skipped past the larger issue of TV journalism's lack of substance and pressed a trivial question about the "militaristic" flavor of TV-newsroom jargon -- an incidental analogy made in the book that, out of its context, makes Schechter sound a little like a grasping-at-straws conspiracy nut. Worse yet, Rooney ran the interview on a Friday press-roundtable show. The brief follow-up discussion was highlighted by UMass/McCormack Institute pundit Lou DiNatale's dismissive critique that Schechter is "all over the place" and his off-the-cuff assurance to any members of the news audience who may feel underserviced that "there's lots of information out there." As if to hammer home the impression that no one in the studio had had time to read the book, Middlesex News reporter Tom Moroney followed up by noting that people who brag that they don't watch television really bug him. (Memo to Tom: see page 36 -- "I watch TV. I even like lots of it . . . ")
"I like and respect Emily," says Schechter. "But I wish I'd been able to debate that panel -- it felt like a gangbang."
The News Dissector didn't fare much better with his old WGBH cohort Chris Lydon on WBUR's The Connection, where the former Ten O'Clock News anchor accused The More You Watch's thesis of "sounding kind of '60s-ish," as if to pigeonhole it with tired knee-jerk causes -- a strange criticism considering, as Schechter points out, that more strident alarmism has come from no less than Walter Cronkite in recent weeks.
At a "Shop Talk" luncheon with the current crop of Nieman Fellows at Harvard's Walter Lippmann House, the level of discourse was predictably higher, though it's unlikely many of the assembled grant-takers had yet read The More You Watch either. Under curator Bill Kovach, Nieman teams have become decidedly international, which subjected Schechter's arguments to unexpected perspectives. Fellow Carlos Puig, for example, challenged Schechter's alarm about corporate homogenization of news content as "elitist," suggesting that his native Mexico and much of the rest of the world would love to have the freedom and diversity American journalists enjoy.
The Niemans were generally cordial, but as a group they weren't swallowing Schechter's position whole. Sure, free-market excesses and abuses can turn news into lowest-common-denominator mush, but the group seemed even more troubled by the threat that regulation -- such as reinstating the FCC requirement that broadcasters devote X number of hours a week to "news and public affairs," which was nuked under Reagan -- would open the door to a state-controlled press.
Ironically, unprepared, uninformed, and navel-gazing interviewers are symptomatic of the very media decline Schechter's book attacks. Then again, he may be lucky that more media people haven't read The More You Watch, the Less You Know. When they do, the interviewers are likely to become blatantly defensive. The book is far more provocative than people have realized. (So far, response to Schechter's book from the print sector has been good. In addition to the Times review, it was well received by a Pacific Northwest paper whose reviewer mistook it for a novel.)
In addition to the entertaining behind-the-scenes anecdotes and insights about Schechter's stints with 20/20 and CNN (sorry, no scandals), the book delivers a cogent argument for media reform.
Broadcast-news outlets, Schechter says, are engaged in an orgy of diluting content, dumbing down presentation, and pandering in a desperate effort to hang on to a diminishing audience. (Schechter singles out Boston's Channel 7 as one of the worst news stations in America.) "One TV newscast looks like any other," Schechter notes. "You can flip around and never know what station you're on. Every news station covers the same stories the same way -- often they even use the same footage."
Then there's the convoluted issue of ownership, which The More You Watch treats in detail but, in true News Dissector tradition, with a human face -- namely that of mogul Rupert Murdoch, who emerges as modern media's villainous archetype. Schechter's chapter on Murdoch's business tactics, and his cheapening impact on media, is alone worth the book's $26.95 cover price. In addition to chronicling Murdoch's empire building, the chapter recounts Globalvision's dalliances with the Fox network -- signing on to produce a documentary on the Kennedys and the Mob, only to have the project killed because Murdoch needed FCC overseer Ted Kennedy's support in a bid to repurchase the New York Post, and a brief effort to add substance to A Current Affair that fell victim to poor ratings. It gives you good reason to be very afraid of the Big Bad Fox.
And though Schechter observes that big-money media conglomerates have effectively worked in concert in the movement to replace news with self-promotion and entertainment, it's going to be difficult for his critics to dismiss him as a paranoid wacko. "The media is not one big conspiracy," he writes. "With thousands of component parts, its effects are much more subtle than that." In person, he restates the point: "A conspiracy would require a coordination of thought that may be beyond the people involved."
Organized or not, the increasingly small number of corporations that own an increasingly large number of news outlets have, according to Schechter, reduced television news to a formulaic mass-audience pacifier with bottom-line ethics. Worse, he argues, centralized information control -- embodied by everything from the loss of local TV programming to the death of indie bookstores -- has denied the public its own voice.
"Back in the '60s, the left was forever talking about controlling 'the means of production,' " says Schechter, speaking of Globalvision's struggles to find backers and buyers for some of its good-for-you documentary product. "Today, we have the means of production; it's the means of distribution we lack."
Schechter quips that he wrote The More You Watch so he could never work in television again, but he does see his book as a means to provoke debate and, he hopes, reform. "I might be burning a lot of bridges with the book," he says, "but these issues are going to continue to bubble up. I think there are a lot more people in our business who are fed up with the direction things are moving in. I'm gambling on intelligence."
Multimedia blitzThe More You Watch, the Less You Know is one of the few books to have its own soundtrack -- a CD called News Goo, an anthology of media-unfriendly songs, raps, and poems that Schechter collected. Tracks include a Little Steven mix of Bruce Springsteen doing "57 Channels (and Nothin' On)"; William Burroughs reading "What Washington? What Orders?"; selections by Leonard Cohen, Nenad Bach, and Allen Ginsberg; plus the somewhat strident title track, by Polar Levine, a/k/a Polarity 1 -- "Westinghouse and Minnie Mouse in the house/makin' heat in the executive suite./The future conceived on the bottom line,/And when the contracts are sorted -- truth is aborted."
More info on Globalvision, The More You Watch, and human rights issues can be found on the Globalvision Web site and on Schechter's media-community bulletin board, where anyone is invited to post comments about the book and journalists are encouraged to blow the whistle about news-gooey practices at their places of employment.
Clif Garboden can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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