OAKLAND -- Montclair resident Reese Erlich is not the type of foreign correspondent you'd hear counting the number of bombs falling on Baghdad as they happen.
Instead, Erlich crosses into war zones after the fighting as an investigative reporter to help the public understand what led up to the action and analyze the next possible interventions, a task not every major media outlet allows its daily reporters to do.
Erlich has been writing and doing radio and television pieces in conflict zones for 40 years. His thoughtful, independent voice cuts through simple talking-points news reporting to give his audience the real stories from the Mideast to Latin America. He is going to host a class through UC Berkeley's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) titled "War, Peace and the Media" on Tuesday afternoons starting next week at the Lafayette Library.
"What I will be stressing in the class is that it's great to listen to NPR or read The New York Times or other media, but they put a spin on the news and it's important to understand these biases," Erlich said from his home office. "There will be new information presented that they're not familiar with and they'll be able to look at media coverage and ferret out what's really going on."
Major media outlets, he said, can't be an engaged news consumer's only outlet. All major media has biases because of reporters' relationships with government sources, for example, and because many are afraid to take risks and therefore often self-censor.
Erlich tells of an exclusive he uncovered from Syria. He was the first foreign reporter to find out about a major attack on a Syrian Army military base. When he went to file the story with the outlet he was working for, the editor balked because there was no mention of this attack on other news wires.
"It was an exclusive," Erlich said. Within 12 hours, everything he had put in his article was confirmed but his editors didn't want to take the risk of being the first to run with it. What if he was wrong?
"The myth is every editor wants a scoop," he said. "They want a scoop if it's in the parameters that are acceptable."
The size of media empires in the United States is another reason why many alternative stories never see the light of day, he said.
"The media in this country are increasingly owned by a smaller and smaller number of very wealthy corporations.
"You used to have newspaper chains. Now you have companies that own newspapers, TV, radio, movies and news media on the Internet," he said.
Newsrooms have also shrunk, and reporters at major media outlets are pressured to not rock the boat. But the largeness of major media outlets is not all negative. Alternative news sources are springing up all over the Internet, and news gatherers can read not only reports from mainstream media on a conflict but also read pieces from English-speaking publications that do business right in the towns and countries where the wars are taking place.
"There are alternatives and sometimes they provide much better quality news than what is being done by the major dailies. It's just on a much smaller scale," he said.
The class is four sessions, the first focused on reading the news and learning the spin cycle. The second will analyze what's going on in Syria followed by a class on Iran and its nuclear crisis and one on Cuba and Latin America. He will present four speakers, including Shane Bauer, a journalist who was one of three hikers detained in Iran while hiking near the Iranian border in Iraqi Kurdistan.
"All of the guest speakers are working journalists who will talk about these crises around the world," he said.
Erlich has taught journalism at San Francisco State University and Cal State East Bay. Erlich's book, "Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn't Tell You," co-authored with Norman Solomon, became a bestseller in 2003. "Conversations with Terrorists: Middle East Leaders on Politics, Violence and Empire," was published in 2010.
He is working on another book tentatively titled "Inside Syria" to be published in the fall.
He has won numerous awards including a Peabody Award in 2006 and his article about the U.S. use of depleted uranium ammunition was voted the eighth most censored story in America for 2003 by Project Censored at Sonoma State University.
UC Berkeley's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) hosts non-graded classes for older learners. "War, Peace, and the Media" will be held from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Lafayette Library, 3491 Mt Diablo Blvd., Lafayette. Registration is $95 with an OLLI membership. Memberships start at $50 per semester. Find out more at http://olli.berkeley.edu or call 510-642-9934.