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Television Show Aims to Inform Kids About Politics

November 3, 2006 at 4:26 PM EDT

LINDA ELLERBEE, Journalist and TV Host: Why are those people on TV so nasty to one other?

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a question many might ask this campaign season, and Linda Ellerbee always has lots of questions.

LINDA ELLERBEE: What makes an ad an attack ad?

JEFFREY BROWN: As host and executive producer of “Nick News,” an award-winning program on the Nickelodeon cable channel, the veteran newswoman asks young people for their answers. And this campaign season, she’s turned her sights on the negativity of political campaigns for the program “Cheap Shots and Low Blows: How Debate Turns to Hate.”

LINDA ELLERBEE: The following program is about the decline of polite debate in American politics and American life in general. This program is for kids, but you might want to invite a parent or other grown-up to watch with you.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Nick News with Linda Ellerbee” aired weekly for its first 10 years, and now nine times a year. It’s the longest-running, most-watched kids news show on television, recently celebrating its 15th birthday, the upper range of many of its viewers. Some start watching as early as 9 years old.

But its birth in 1991 took even Ellerbee by surprise.

LINDA ELLERBEE: It was an accident, completely. The first Gulf War had started, and Nickelodeon was afraid that kids, American kids, were frightened of all the noise. It was the first time we’d been to war since we had 24-hour news, since we had all these things.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what was your reaction when they called?

LINDA ELLERBEE: My first reaction was, “I don’t know anything about kids, I mean, other than having raised two and been one.”

Informing kids

JEFFREY BROWN: She learned quickly and, over the years, traveled the world, covering the plight of children in Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the AIDS crisis in South Africa, and genocide past and present. At home, she's tackled issues from children with disabilities to homelessness to Katrina and the war in Iraq.

Along the way, there have been many unexpected and moving moments. An early one came in 1992 when HIV-positive basketball star Magic Johnson comforted a young girl confronting the same disease.

MAGIC JOHNSON, Basketball Star: You wanted to say something?

LITTLE GIRL: Yes, I want people to know that we're just normal people.

MAGIC JOHNSON: We are normal people.

LINDA ELLERBEE: If we have messages at "Nick News," it comes down to three. One, ignorance is not bliss. You don't go to heaven if you die dumb. I don't know.

And, two, that wherever you find bad things happening, you will always find good people trying to make it better.

And the last one is that we are probably all more alike than we are different.

If I ask you something and you don't want to answer it, feel free. Not school, not a quiz. This is about other kids hearing your voices so they could start to think about these issues.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ellerbee has devoted air time on "Nick News" to all of the presidential elections since 1992. The 35-year TV veteran covered many an election as a network correspondent in the '70s and '80s.

LINDA ELLERBEE: The White House and the Republican Party are said to be elated tonight.

JEFFREY BROWN: She pioneered the late-night news program "NBC News Overnight" and anchored ABC's "Our World," a weekly primetime historical series, before starting her own Lucky Duck Productions Company to make documentaries.

'Real news'

LINDA ELLERBEE: The question that makes me most crazy is when people say, "Don't you miss the real news?" This is the real news.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is it?

LINDA ELLERBEE: This is the real news. I'll put my newscast up against theirs any day of the week.

I mean, I can go out and ask people what they think about Iraq all day, and nobody's going to say, "Well, you know, you're interfering with the administration or you're not." I can do -- we can decide that something is news and that it's worthwhile for kids to know about without focus-grouping it.

This is the real news. We operate by the same rules. Accuracy still counts. You know, we are journalists. It's just that our audience is a little bit younger, but they're not dumb, just a little younger and shorter.

JEFFREY BROWN: And shorter.

LINDA ELLERBEE: And shorter.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are there other differences when you're doing the news for 9- to 14-year-olds, you, as a reporter, producer, writer?

LINDA ELLERBEE: There are two differences in writing for kids and grown-ups, and the first one is a vocabulary thing. If I use a word that I don't think a 10-year-old -- that a 10-year-old might not understand, I will either use it in such a way that the usage makes the definition perfectly clear, or I'll stop and explain it, and then go on. That's one.

Then, the other -- and possibly personally sadder difference is -- and I discovered this very quickly when we started 15 years ago, irony is lost on 10-year-olds.

Telling the story

JEFFREY BROWN: To look at the current campaign, Ellerbee -- in her trademark orange Converse high-tops -- sparks interaction by showing the participants taped reports about issues and races around the country and campaign ads, old and new.

TELEVISION AD NARRATOR: Sen. Hillary Clinton opposes the Patriot Act and the NSA program...

LINDA ELLERBEE: Is debate more honest when people take the gloves off or just louder?

YOUNG WOMAN ON "NICK NEWS": People love to see on TV a fight or -- when you turn the news on, I mean, you always see negative things. People aren't really interested in seeing, like, the really good things that are going on.

YOUNG MAN ON "NICK NEWS": I really don't think we can blame the media, because usually a debate, people have to stay open-minded, but a lot of times people aren't, because they're so focused on proving their point that they don't hear the other person's side.

YOUNG WOMAN ON "NICK NEWS": You shouldn't be purposefully trying to make two people head-butt just to get, you know, what we'd call good television or...

LINDA ELLERBEE: Why? Do you think anyone would do that on television?

YOUNG MAN ON "NICK NEWS": When I argue with people who I don't really agree with their opinion, you really don't listen at all. They just -- basically, their point of view shuts out everyone else's point of view. I myself don't listen to what they're saying, and I really try to make them feel that my opinion's right.

LINDA ELLERBEE: This show short of came out with a conversation with a friend of mine who's an Episcopal priest. And he and I were talking about civil discourse. How are we going to behave to one another in the public arena when we disagree?

And we were talking about, well, does that have an effect on kids? And the more we thought about it, we thought, "Well, it probably does." Let's use the midterm election to tell this story.

And is that the purpose of debate, to make good television? Is it supposed to be entertaining or is it supposed to be informing?

YOUNG MAN ON "NICK NEWS": If America stopped watching these shows, then they would go off the air. And so we keep saying, oh, how much we hate how vicious the debating stuff is, but if we really honestly didn't like it, then people wouldn't watch it. So it's partially us that's keeping it on the air, not the media.

YOUNG MAN ON "NICK NEWS": Within society itself is that it's either really angry or no discussion at all, and I think we need to change that and allow for civil discussion and make that the primary focus.

Giving people a voice

LINDA ELLERBEE: My goal is to raise a nation of rowdy citizens. What we do is we give them a voice. We give them a place they can use their voice. And we let them know that we care about what they have to say.

JEFFREY BROWN: To make the world seem smaller to her small -- and not so small -- viewers, Ellerbee takes the show to India next. But first, she wants to make sure the future generation of voters and leaders tries to understand each other's point of view.

LINDA ELLERBEE: We must speak honestly, as well as openly, which means we may sometimes need to say unpleasant things to and occasionally about each other. Now, can we do that with respect? In other words, if we can't all play nice, can we at least play fair? What do you think?

I'm Linda Ellerbee. Good-bye for "Nick News."

JIM LEHRER: Linda Ellerbee's election special will air on Nickelodeon this Sunday at 8:30 p.m. Eastern time.