RIP Danny Schechter, Guerilla Journalist

Danny Schechter, the Media Dissector, has died of pancreatic cancer. Known for his progressive politics and guerilla journalism from the antiapartheid movement to occupy, Danny wrote numerous books and produced films that “spoke back to power.” And his actions connected to his work and his politics. Befriended by Ruth First, Joe Slovo, and Ronnie Kasrils while studying for a master’s in London, Danny clandestinely traveled to South Africa and worked against the apartheid regime. You can read about it in a wonderful book entitled, London Recruits.

But I write about Danny because he was kind. I first called him when I was working on Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid. Ruth befriended him in London and I knew that he spent time with her and Joe. He was willing to talk and he was constantly helping me with the project. On Ruth, he said, “She was not playing the revolution; she was making the revolution, or trying to.”[1]

He endlessly told people about my book and he kindly came to the NYC launch and argued better than myself with some of my critics. Then last May he invited me to be part of the Nelson Mandela panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival. He could have invited many other people, but he wanted everyone to know my book.

Hamba Kahle Good Man

Ruth First found new excitement in her life at this time as the people she met, both at London School of Economics, and generally, expanded her world outside of the boundaries of the SACP. One of her friends at LSE was a young man named Danny Schechter. Schechter returned to the United States in the late sixties and launched a news organization called the African Research Group. He and Ruth often corresponded helping each other with information on what was happening on the Continent. They also collaborated from afar on research on the CIA. He went on to be a producer at American Broadcasting Network’s news magazine show, 20/20, but is better known as “Danny Schechter, The Media Dissector,” a radical critic of journalism in the United States. Schechter’s first memories of Ruth First are instructive.

At LSE in my class I saw this really attractive woman who was clearly older, professional, not sort of the student culture and when she spoke and asked questions she was extremely compelling, very brilliant. Ruth was also interested and intrigued by the American New Left. So here’s this woman who is very intimidating to me initially — didn’t take any shit. Being a student was the last thing she wanted to be but she was cut off from the struggle she had been part of and in exile in Britain raising three girls in a house in a house in Camden Town. So we began talking about our histories. I had no idea who she was. I had no idea about the ANC really other than Albert Luthuli won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. So the two of us sort of hit it off and she was basically talking to me about personal stuff, frustrations with a lot of the South Africans and the Party, the positions they were taking. She was a new leftist at heart.

Joe Slovo also befriended Schechter when he began coming to Sunday brunches at their home. In fact, Joe helped Schechter pursue South African film projects at the time that apartheid was ending. Schechter’s memory of being in Ruth’s and Joe’s home is not unlike that of other friends.

So I meet Ruth and Ruth invites me over for brunch on Sunday and I meet Joe and I meet the girls. And it was kind of bedlam. There yelling at each other. By this time she has already become very skeptical about Stalinism, the old line Communist Party approach. Joe, of course, is the leader of the Communist Party. And she’s not happy about the Soviet Union, she’s critical of it.

Finally, Schechter provides an insightful analysis of Ruth First’s time in England saying, “She was not playing the revolution; she was making the revolution, or trying to.”

Alan Wieder is an oral historian who lives in Portland, Oregon. Since 1999 he has worked on oral histories of political resistance in apartheid South Africa. He spent over twenty years on the faculty of the University of South Carolina and has also taught at the University of Western Cape in South Africa. He is the author of Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid.


[1] Ibid.