Linda Ellerbee Honored, Nick News Turns Twenty


Linda Ellerbee

Linda Ellerbee Photo: AP: PR NEWSWIRE

It started out as a simple idea: add a children’s version of a TV news show to a cartoon channel.

More than 20 years after Nickelodeon president Cyma Zarghami suggested that possibility to Linda Ellerbee, who had left CNN to pen a book, Nick News has become the longest running children’s news show in TV history. The show has won both an  Edward R. Murrow and a Peabody award, as well as nine Emmys.

The secret to the show’s success, according to creator Ellerbee, is that she never talks down to kids and lets them participate and tell their stories.

“I don’t sit talking to kids, I listen to them,” Ellerbee said at a recent Paley Center for Media event to honor her career.

Although Ellerbee was already well known as a former anchor of NBC Overnight, the success of Nick News has turned her into a superstar among the younger generation. It’s a label she wears lightly.

“I’m flattered when people call me a pioneer, but I don’t accept it,” she said in an address to an audience of a few hundred colleagues and admirers earlier this month at the Paley Center. “After all, only dead fishes swim with the stream all the time.“

Twenty years later, though, Nick News still faces some of the same questions that Ellerbee has been trying to answer since the show’s inception: How should journalists cover kids? And, just as important, how much news are kids ready to hear?

Some critics, for example, question whether images of tragic news stories should be shown to kids.

For Ellerbee, the answer seems obvious. “In today’s world, kids will hear about it anyway.  The media is too pervasive now,” she said.  “Most likely the kids will probably get it wrong, but our job is to get it right.”

Unlike some parents, Linda does not draw the line with terrorism: “When I was a kid, we would do false alarms and squat under a desk to prepare for a Russian nuclear holocaust.  I was a tiny kid, but it was clear to me that getting under my desk wouldn’t do a damn thing to protect me.  I’d go to bed at night horrified that the Russians would drop the bomb.  I think it’s because the rumors and playground talk is much scarier than the real thing.”

Over the past two decades, Nick News has covered the Iraq war, the 9/11 terrorist attack, war in Afghanistan and AIDS in Africa. But she always tries to leaven bad news with an anecdote about someone good making a difference. “We never lie, but we show people during bad events doing good things to make it better.  We are sending a message that you can be one of the people making it better,” she said. “I think that is one of the problems with the news today; they missed the stories of those helping out doing good.”

During a question-and-answer session, moderator Ann Curry of the Today Show asked Ellerbee what convinced her to create Nick News.  Ellerbee responded that she thought she only would take on Nick News for a year or so, and then go back to NBC, ABC or another traditional network.  But Ellerbee found that she learned more from the kids than she could have imagined.  Nothing has pleased her more than when children challenge her ideas, she said.

“We did a whole tribute to Hispanic kids in America.  This kid five minutes in says that it is inappropriate to use the word Hispanic, and instead we should use Latino.  He was a hundred percent right, and I a hundred percent wrong and we changed it,” she said.

Ellerbee,  67, said she loves what she is doing and will host the show for as long as she is able to.

Outside of the Paley Center a few days after Ellerbee’s talk, Marilyn Lopez was out for an evening stroll with her 8-year-old daughter and a close friend.  She knew nothing about Linda Ellerbee or Nick News, but her daughter did.  “I love that show, Mom,” said her daughter Melissa.  “She’s the cute woman, and you learn so much watching her.”

Marilyn Lopez looked at her daughter and said, “I never have heard of this show.  I guess I have no clue what you are watching.  I thought it was SpongeBob SquarePants?”

Barbara Janes, a Manhattan resident, said she believed children should not only have the opportunity but also should be obligated to watch news.  “When I was eight, Pearl Harbor happened.  That day, I can remember it like it was yesterday, FDR came on the radio and helped comfort us all,” she said. “Since then, I have never gone a day without a newspaper.  I believe what Linda Ellerbee is doing today with this children’s news show is exactly what the young people in this country need.  She’s getting them informed.”