Feature

Keeping Watch

In his new book, news producer Danny Schechter dissects the media.

by Susan Ellis

It’s been more than 20 years since a deejay at Boston’s WBCN radio first introduced Danny Schechter as “the news dissector,” but since that moment he’s taken the name to heart. In his work as a news producer for CNN and 20/20 and later independently at the company he co-founded, Globalvision, Schechter says that he’s always strived to flush out the most important facts in his stories. But, he adds, it hasn’t always been easy; higher powers have worked against him and do work against others in the media industry. In his new book The More You Watch, The Less You Know, Schechter explains why the media is in such a mess, how it got that way, and what can be done to remedy its problems. In a recent interview, he discussed, among other topics, why he wrote the book, the media’s biggest problems, and why a sound media is so important.

How would you describe your book?
What I’ve tried to do is talk about the media today, and why there’s been this merger of show business and news business, through the prism of my own experiences in radio, television, in global news, and network news, and more recently, for the last 10 years as an independent producer. I think a lot of the discussion about news media tends to be abstract or boring. If I can add a personal voice to the story, it might be more compelling to the readers.
It seems that the media has been taking a drubbing lately. Why do you think that is?

I think there’s been an aversion to a couple of things that seem blatantly offensive on one level – somebody’s lying on the highway bleeding, and a reporter’s standing over him with a microphone asking him how he feels. That’s one problem.
The next problem is that the media itself has become very much a part of the system rather than a check of the system. The news culture and the political culture seem to have fused, so you look at the pundit shows on the weekends and these guys are indistinguishable from politicians.
I think, finally, there’s something crude and tasteless about this journalism that’s really this tabloid-style approach. Because it’s really insulting to people’s intelligence.
You lament in your book about the struggle between entertainment and information, but you recognize that people like entertainment.
The irony is that I do too. Personally, I’ve tried to do stories in an entertainingly engaging way. I think you can do reporting with high production values, I think you can do it with sharp images and compelling narratives without being boring, but also without sacrificing substance.
How would you define responsible journalism?
I think you need a social conscience and context. You need a perspective on the world. All stories are not the same. You have to be able to establish priorities, understand the importance of the essence of the story. Often what we get is a very superficial take on the thing because reporters don’t have the time or the inclination to probe a little deeper. So I think responsible journalism is about telling the truth ultimately, but it’s hard to get at the truth sometimes.
I also believe in participatory journalism. I think the best way to understand a story is to get involved to some degree. It doesn’t mean you have to become an advocate. Although [when I was] covering South Africa for 30 years, I didn’t hide my convictions and claim to have some higher level of objectivity, which is usually a phony, unachievable ideal.
Explain how a few media empires owning many outlets have affected the news.
Put it this way, if you are head of Company A to buy Company B for x billion amount of dollars, you have to go and raise money and get loans. Now you have all this debt as well as having this enormous business operation. To pay it off, you have to figure out ways to cut costs, which means downsizing in the news operation. The easiest people to fire first are the researchers. Instead of research we have Nexis-Lexis, which means we’re basically repeating and recycling some of the same old stories.
These companies practice synergy. The same company that owns the TV network owns the magazine also owns movie studios, etc. There’s a tendency to cross-promote. Suddenly, Good Morning America is coming to you live from Disney World and it just happens to be owned by Disney. There’s this way in which these companies, because they have so much in stake financially, feel that they have to push the so-called bottom line concerns of everything they do.
What is the worst problem plaguing the media?
I think this myth that we’re just giving the people what they want. Over and over you hear that line. Often somebody in authority says, “People don’t care about that.” Usually, it translates in code as, “I don’t care about that.” Unfortunately, the get-along-by-going-along mentality is produced in a corporate culture. You're working in an organization with a person you privately know is a dummy, and yet that dummy is making six times what you’re making, so now you want to make more money. The way to make more money is to move up the corporate ladder. How do you move up the corporate ladder? By being a team player. And when you’re a team player you don’t often give voice to your dissenting feelings because that’s counterproductive. You end up getting absorbed in the system.
You cut out to do the kind of work you wanted to do. Is that realistic for other journalists?
I made the decision to leave because I saw a potential to do something that wasn’t being done, global programming. I learned pretty fast that I couldn’t just denounce corporations. I became a corporation [forming Globalvision with Rory O’Connor]. We realized that our work, the work that we care about, can never really get seen by a large number of people unless the distribution apparatus opens up more. I realized that it was in our interest to try to change the media system, hence, I did this book. The book cuts two ways. On the one hand, you can call me a TV turncoat. On the other hand, I’m trying to place work on these networks to some degree. I’m trying to work within the system and maybe by mouthing off this way it could really hurt my career. Things were getting so out of hand with the O.J. trial and the sickening pervasive coverage of one spectacle after another, I felt like I had to write about it. My soul was crying out.
Has there been backlash?
It’s hard to get on some shows I think I should be on. Oprah said no way. If I wrote a diet book I’d probably get on the air more. One of the last things you see on television is the impact of television. Even when all these mergers were going down that affected the direct interest of the media companies, there was rarely any reporting on television. It was only reported way in the back of the paper where most people don’t go.
I’m not alone. Since I wrote this book, Walter Cronkite gave a major speech blasting corporate agenda. Don Hewitt the head of 60 Minutes attacked his own network. … I feel like my ideas started out as being way out there on the margins and are now moving rapidly into the mainstream. I think we can change the media in America if we become more attentive to it. Another thing that I’ve done is create a Web site [www.visitweb.com/moreuwatch] to provide a place that I call Journalists Anonymous, so that people in the media can report and post their own experiences of having their stories spiked or distorted.
When I started working against segregation in the South, most of America thought, these people are crazy, these people are going to bring down segregation practice for 100 years? No way. Yet segregation was overturned. I think the media and democracy movement today is where the civil-rights movements was in the mid-’50s.
How is reshaping the media as urgent as the civil-rights movement?
Health care for all Americans, social justice, ethical practices by corporations, a better educational system – all the main issues of our time – are all dependent on public awareness or public pressure. If we don’t have a news media that really is informing people what’s going on, then they can’t take part in all this and can’t fight for their rights. We’ve got to open up the media to do its role in fostering democracy.
You mention in the book solutions to help the media such as legislation, activism. Can you put it in a nutshell?
Yeah, wake up and start getting involved. Talk back to your TV set. Communicate with media companies, get your organizations involved in monitoring TV coverage and see who’s being covered and who isn’t. Try to get media literacy in school and try to get your politicians talking about this. Not with the idea of putting the media down or restricting the freedom of the press, but encouraging media institutions to play the role they’re supposed to be playing – as a watchdog, not a lapdog.
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For a list of local booksellers carrying
The More You Watch, The Less You Know, call 1-800-596-7437.


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