News Dissector: Passions, Pieces and Polemics: 1960-2000
Reviewed by Bill Mithoefer
Wednesday, October 3 2001, 2:49 PM
For the past 40 years, leftist rennaissance man Danny Schecter has skillfuly reported, analyzed and criticized the facts that fall between the cracks. With the descriptive eye of Jack London, the socio-political consciousness of David Noble and Noam Chomsky, and the wildness of Hunter S. Thomson, Schecter chose his own path creating the Platonic form of what's now called "alternative media," as a film and radio news producer, an essay writer and a social critic. The editors, Joel Schalit and Johnny Temple, have assembled a casual collection of his pieces, in an order based more on organic connections than chronology, following Schecter's association with the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left all the way to post-Apartheid South Africa and the war in Bosnia. A section entitled "I-Spy" shows us his investigation by the CIA and FBI. Schecter explores the CIA's infiltration of mainstream news agencies and critiques these agencies' coverage of South Africa. Finally, we are presented his work as both a political analyst and producer of mass media.
The author's early foray as a teenager polemicizing the idea of the right to vote at eighteen opens the collection. Like most of the essays, an editorial comment added later update his view (which is reversed in this case). This is one of the few collections that I have read that follows this format, which is as entertaining as it is informative. We follow Schecter's adventures bringing Malcolm X to speak at Cornell, critically listening to upwardly mobile union leader Jimmy Hoffa speak, understanding black nationalists' desire to distance themselves from the "burning house" of mainstream America, and living through the rent strikes in Harlem in 1964. He reports on his infiltration of James P. Cavanagh's mayoral campaign in Detroit and his enlistment of a CUNY professor to appeal on Schecter's behalf in front of the draft board. We look on in disgust as a party of suburbanites and stiffs try the Chicago Eight, presided over by "Judge Julius J. Hoffman, like America itself,  Magoo and Hitler rolled into one." Perhaps the most interesting articles cover his time attending graduate school at the London School of Economics, where Schecter shows us an early example of the incorporation of the university, where, "the metaphor of the factory had become all too apt."
Schecter's style of writing particularly shines in News Dissector's pieces on Vietnam. He explains the reasons why the U.S. lost the war. In the author's mind, the Provisional Revolutionary Government maintained "sound political [and] military strateg[ies,]" "a tradition of resistance[,]" and "unity[.]" They emphasized "the role of women[,]" "a highly developed organizational structure[,]" "a network of human service programs[,]" and a united front with Laos and Cambodia. The Vietnamese people carefully "walk[ed] the tightrope of the Sino-Soviet split" and reached the American anti-war movement, separating the actions of an unjust militaristic government from the hearts and minds of its people. And perhaps most importantly they maintained their faith. Schecter points out that "[t]he Vietnamese are tough. They withstood everything concocted by the most criminal minds in the Pentagon."
Several under-publicized government scandals and indiscretions pop up in News Dissector. Operation Babylift was a botched attempt by the Air Force to airlift a C-5 transport plane full of Vietnamese orphans to the U.S. as a PR coup. The Air Force was already in a long-standing bureaucratic argument with Lockheed over the lack of safety in the planes. The operation resulted in a major aviation accident. Most of the babies were either killed or wounded and the Air Force "lost" crucial photographs during the resulting lawsuit. The lawyers representing Lockheed and the USAF tied the victims up for years in court and justice was never served for these people of color. The Air Force "was ultimately ordered to pay $1.5 billion for the repair, which included $150 million cost plus profit for Lockheed."
Schecter dissects several other newsworthy items. The collusion of the CIA with Harvard's faculty was news to me. The first article I ever read detailing the "extended family" of American African Studies departments, government agencies and aid organizations' amassing of large amounts of information to control the under-developed African nations' peoples appeared in "The Extended Family: African Studies in America, 1969-1970." The author rightly critiques the western world's economic dominion over Africa "[i]n the fifteen years or so since the white power structure wholeheartedly "discovered" Africa[.]" Concerning South Africa, Schecter explains in a 1977 article for "MORE", "South Africa runs on cheap black labor. More than 200 apartheid laws exist to keep it that way." But as he rightly points out, very few articles in the mainstream media dealt with this fact.
Finally, Schecter shows how right-wing pundits took over PBS in a funding coup-de-grace. After the corporate mergers and insider hiring homogenizing the mainstream TV channels, a government funded conservative think tank took over PBS. He points out hopefully that micro radio and public access TV might change all this by putting the media back in the peoples' hands. Anyone wanting a carefully written, down-to-earth view behind the scenes of world governments and media in the last 40 years should read News Dissector.
News Dissector is available from Akashic Books