CHATHAM – The media is under assault from all sides lately, it seems.
Large newspapers and major TV networks are losing readers and viewers, a trend that began years ago as the internet began to change the way people get their news. Budgets are being slashed and many media outlets, particularly newspapers in small and medium-sized cities, are only a shadow of their former selves as reporters and other staff members are cut. In just the past 18 years, the number of employed journalists has gone from 425,000 to 183,000.
Meanwhile, President Trump lashes out at the media every chance he gets, attacking the credibility of mainstream outlets and calling anything he doesn't like or is critical to his administration “fake news.”
Both of those trend lines converge in “The Crisis of Today's News Media and Its Impact on Democracy,” a three-session course at the Eldredge Public Library's Fall Learning Series taught by retired journalist and Truro resident Mike Berlin.
Ultimately, both of those topics speak to the state of our democracy, he said.
“It's really about democracy in America and telling people what's going on,” he said of the loss of coverage in many locations due to news cutbacks. He said in cities where daily papers have been lost or news staffs cut severely, salaries of public officials start to rise; in state capitals where reporters are no longer stationed – especially smaller cities like Albany, where there used to be 30 or 40 reporters and are now about six covering state government – corruption escalates.
“There's nobody to watch,” he said.
Oddly enough, Berlin said, Trump is seen as a “temporary savior” of many of the media outlets he dislikes. The Washington Post is profitable now on an almost steady diet of Trump, as is the New York Times, although he said that paper made significant efforts to cultivate an audience and develop a way to earn revenue from its online presence. Trump's attacks on the media have consequences; they both spur more media coverage, and also make the job of gathering news potentially dangerous. Think of audiences at Trump rallies nearly attacking reporters.
It's not the papers with a national audience or deep-pocket owners like the Times, Post or Los Angeles Times that are in danger; it's other papers that are owned by hedge funds or large chains that have not been able to gain traction in the current climate. Papers in Portland, Or. and San Francisco are “shadows of their former selves,” Berlin said.
Berlin said he uses the events of the day in his course to spark discussion. “I know I can rely on events for my subject matter,” he said. A course on Trump and the media he gave at the Learning Series last fall attracted some 40 people, many of whom wanted to get involved in discussions.
“It's a live show, not a dead lecture,” he said of his course. It's often very satisfying for him. “When people speak from the audience, I'm learning things from each one of them I haven't thought of.”
Although he's retired now, Berlin had a long career in journalism beginning with writing a neighborhood newspaper as a youngster. After attending the Columbia School of Journalism, he worked for the Associated Press and on a number of newspapers, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle and New York Herald Tribune. He covered the United Nations for 20 years for the New York Post and the Washington Post. After retiring, he taught journalism at Boston University. He now lives in Truro most of the year.
Berlin's course will be held from 10:30 a.m. to noon on Sept. 18, 25 and Oct. 2 at the Main Street library. It's one of more than 18 courses being offered this fall in the Learning Series, which is sponsored by the Friends of the Eldredge Library. Courses cost $15 each and a full listing is available at the library website, www.eldredgelibrary.org, or at the library.