by Franette Armstrong, OLLI member
To those of us who have listened to his NPR reports or read his books, Reese Erlich is the go-to guy for making sense out of often hopelessly (purposefully?) muddled media reporting on what’s going on in the world. In his 40-plus years as a foreign correspondent, Erlich has traveled to over 100 countries leaving a trail of vivid analysis, articles, documentaries, books, and awards.
On January 28, Erlich returns to OLLI with a four-week course at the Lafayette Library, “War, Peace and the Media,” that will ask, “What do we know about what’s happening outside our borders and how do we know it’s true?”
In the class, Erlich will analyze post-9/11 U.S. military interventions in four global hotspots: Syria, Iran, Cuba and the Middle East. With guest speakers from the subject countries, Erlich will scrutinize national media coverage to untangle truth from jingoism through an insider’s point of view.
What got Erlich here is as fascinating as the stories he reports. Irony, serendipity, moxie, and spunk…it’s all there in his bio.
Long before OLLI was a sparkle in Bernard Osher’s eye, before the UC Regents would even let him back on campus, it was 1965 and Reese Erlich was a freshman at Cal where he was majoring in Revolution (it was an independent major—this was the 60s after all), and the anti-war movement captured his attention.
By his junior year, he and six others had gotten arrested and indicted as the “Oakland Seven” for organizing Stop the Draft Week. In their highly publicized trial for conspiracy to commit misdemeanors, they were represented by the renowned civil rights attorney, Charles Garry (Black Panthers, People’s Temple), and finally acquitted of all charges.
Fast-forward to October 2007 and here he is being honored on Reese Erlich Day by the City of Oakland. “It was a wonderful day," he said. "A few people who had been storming the barricades with me 40 years earlier were now sitting on City Council.” In 2010, San Francisco repeated the honor with another Reese Erlich Day in recognition of his investigative reporting.
But back to 1967. Out of jail and told never to darken the halls of Berkeley again, Erlich found work as a late-night typist at Ramparts, at that time the country's leading investigative reporting magazine. “I wasn’t afraid to talk to people, so they promoted me to reporter to learn journalism the old-fashioned way—by making lots of mistakes and getting barked at.
“I didn’t have a clue how to write for a magazine. I’d go out and get a story, then I’d bring it back written in academic-essay format because that was all I knew. Then I’d watch as Rewrite would hammer on a IBM Selectric typewriter for 20 minutes and turn it into journalism. It seemed like magic at first.”
But it didn’t take Erlich long to figure out the formula: “During the years of protesting and the trial, I had a mouth on me and I knew how to put together a soundbyte. I’d notice what ended up on TV and in print. That taught me what editors were looking for. So, I just reverse-engineered the process to figure out what to ask to get the information I needed. Anyone could do it with a willing mentor.”
And what mentors he had…Robert Scheer and Warren Hinckle, to name two of the finest writers of the time. He sharpened his instincts as research editor and cut his teeth on articles that began appearing in alternative newspapers and eventually publications such as San Francisco Magazine, Mother Jones, and The Nation.
The first of Erlich’s four books rolled out in 2003 with the best-seller, Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn't Tell You, co-authored with Norman Solomon. His print journalism continued to gain fame (or infamy as some would have it), with pieces including an article on the U.S. use of depleted uranium in Iraq, later designated the eighth-most censored story in America in 2003.
But again, we’re getting ahead of the story. In 1986, Erlich was freelancing for the Christian Science Monitor, which had recently formed a radio network. “They needed foreign correspondents and knew that I had the basic reporting skills, so they patiently taught me how to write for radio.”
How does one write for radio? “Sound drives radio: Ambient noise gives the listener a sense of place. Sound bytes drive the story so you basically try to get good bytes and then write around them.”
“A radio story has to be brief and succinct,” he added, “and since people can’t go back and reread, the reporter has to be clear who’s speaking and why what they’re saying is important.”
Erlich’s voice is rich and resonant but not to his own ear. “I don’t think of myself as having a great radio voice, and it has taken ongoing training to make it understandable,” he explained.
Speaking of voices, in 2005, he was working with Walter Cronkite on Lessons from Hiroshima 60 Years Later, one of four one-hour radio documentaries the two collaborated on for Public Radio International, and he felt he needed to coach the renowned TV anchor. “I told him, ‘Just give me a relaxed public radio voice.’ He looked at me puzzled…and then he read the lines like Walter Cronkite. Of course. Why would we bring in Walter Cronkite and not use his voice?”
Early on, Erlich decided that freelancing was the way to go, whether in print or on the air, but he always made sure his expenses were covered and he had a ticket home. “At the beginning I stayed in rat traps and generally kept my expenses low. I often go where they don’t have staff correspondents, so mostly I work alone.”
Surely someone who reports in over 100 countries must speak a lot of languages…”No. I speak serviceable Spanish and stumble in French and Italian. But a surprising number of people speak English, and I have translators. If I’m interviewing officials, they provide their own.”
How do you know who to talk to and who to believe? “It’s not that different from interviewing people here: you read up, you talk to as many people as possible, and you compare what’s been written to what they say.
“Clearly it’s more difficult the first time you go somewhere, but you just study up ahead of time and try to find a reliable fixer—someone who can help you meet the right people.”
He might be underplaying the value of instincts and perseverance just a little, but that has not gone unnoticed by others. Author and actor Peter Coyote wrote: “I traveled with Erlich from the Souks of Damascus to the killing grounds of Al Sukariya near Iraq…It was like traveling with a pit-bull who is trailing a truck of raw meat. Erlich locks on to an objective and will not be deterred.”
As for danger, Erlich tries to minimize that by staying out of war zones. “I’m not an embed. I wait ‘til the bang-bang is over before I go in to explain what happened and its effect. They might be still lobbing rockets and mortar shells into a city like Damascus or Beirut, but it’s luck of the of the draw; you can go down the street and get hit by a truck, just like here.”
As the years went by, awards piled on: His first book on Iraq was a national best seller, he shared a Peabody Award in 2006 as a segment producer for Crossing East, a radio documentary on the history of Asians in the US. In 2012, his documentary Inside the Syrian Revolution earned him best “radio explanatory journalism” from the Society of Professional Journalists in Northern California.
One country that has had particular pull on Erlich is Cuba, which became the subject of his third book, Dateline Havana (2009).
During his first trip there in 1968, on assignment for Ramparts, he spent a month traveling the country by bus and has since returned 13 times.
What does he see in the future for US/Cuban relations, especially after the handshake seen ‘round the world at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service? “Obama has made some positive but superficial changes—Cubans in the US can now send more money back to Cuba, Americans can take educational tours of Cuba—but the hard-right Cuban faction here is against recognizing Cuba and they prevail because official Washington isn't willing to stand up to them.
“It’s irrational. US citizens can to go to North Korea anytime, but not Cuba. North Korea is not on the State Department's list of state-sponsors of terrorism, but Cuba is. Go figure.”
Why did Erlich stay in radio instead of transitioning to TV, as so many print and radio reporters did in the 70s and 80s? “Some of it was just chance, but a big part was that a TV reporter has less control over the story—especially as a freelancer. I might do a video piece and sell it only to find the images used as background video and the rest of the story dumped. I want to do the full package.”
That said, he has created two television documentaries and does video reporting from Egypt, Syria and Bahrain for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Still, with all his hard-won foreign experience, wouldn’t it be natural to become a pundit? “Well, I was on the old Crossfire (CNN) and have been on Fox of course.” FOX? “Yeah. Hannity & Colmes ...” How did that work out? “Well, you know, liberal guests get 10 seconds to make a point and then the yelling starts.”
All that Jazz
Erlich lives in the Oakland Hills with his wife, an attorney. They have a grown son, also an attorney. Both lawyers, unsurprisingly, represent the underdog.
He still works full-time as an author and reporter and travels up to four months a year, but only a couple of weeks at a time. He’s a lifelong lover of jazz, so he enjoys being home where he keeps up with the local jazz scene at Yoshi’s, Le Colonial, and SF Jazz Center. His Perspectives on Jazz series airs on 16 public radio stations in the United States and Canada and appears online at JazzCorner.com.
What’s up next? Well, the OLLI course, certainly, and then a new book tentatively titled Inside Syria, to be published by Prometheus in the Fall. More trips. More awards?