Sure, Linda Ellerbee is a revered figure these days, someone who has talked to kids via "Nick News" for 20 years.
But she's also been a brilliant news reporter and anchor, talking to grown-ups. And -- like many news people -- she's had some fun.
In her autobiography, Ellerbee described a drunken colleague who thought he was going to the rest room of his hotel; instead, he relieved himself over the atrium restaurant. Many people are appalled by this, she wrote, by she just treats it as a cautionary note: Now she always gets one of those little umbrellas for her drinks.
That's vintage Ellerbee; meanwhile, the current version has a terrific special Thursday, telling kids about the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Here's the story I sent to papers:
By MIKE HUGHES
What we should notice about Linda
Ellerbee are her sharp mind and her incisive wit.
On this particular day, however, what
we notice first is that her retro-style tennis shoes are a bright
orange. It's a look that few other 67-year-olds could pull off.
Ellerbee's special for kids on Thursday
helps launch TV's September surge of World Trade Center reports. It
also continues her ongoing, on-air transformation.
There was a time when Linda Ellerbee
fit the image of hard-living, hard-drinking reporters. Her
autobiography offers rowdy accounts of misdeeds by her and by others.
These days, however, she does specials
on Nickelodeon, the kids' channel. To viewers, she might be that
eccentric aunt everyone needs. “Or some bizarre, raggedy neighbor,”
All of this has happened sort of by
accident, she said. “I was ready to go with the traditional life,
with a family and husband. (But) my husband left when I was 28, with
So Ellerbee dove into news work,
something that fits her. She writes easily, talks easily, has lots of
opinions and few filters. Working for the Associated Press in Dallas,
she wrote what she calls “a very chatty letter,” then
accidentally sent it on the news wire. “It was a self-inflicted
wound,” she said.
But the letter was clever enough to
draw the attention of the news director of a Houston TV station.
Soon, Ellerbee was working there, then going on to WCBS in New York
and to the networks.
In the years that followed, she drew
raves. She won an Emmy for her writing on ABC's “Our World”
(1986-87); when she and Lloyd Dobyns did “NBC Overnight” (1982),
the duPont Columbia Awards called it “possibly the best written and
most intelligent news program ever.”
After “Our World,” however,
Ellerbee left the networks. With former ABC newsman Rolfe Tessem, she
started Lucky Duck Productions, doing documentaries for at least a
The key came in 1991, when Nickelodeon
wanted a Gulf war special for kids. “We knew if they saw kids on
television talking about their fears and concerns, it would be OK to
have those concerns themselves,” Ellerbee said.
That launched what became “Nick
News.” Twenty years and eight Emmys later, it is “recognized for
speaking directly and respectfully to kids,” said Marjorie Cohn,
Nickelodeon's programming chief.
A 1992 special set the tone: Magic
Johnson, the basketball star, had arrived at the set fairly late,
Ellerbee said, and didn't know that four of the kids were (like him)
HIV-positive.“This little girl sat next to him and he reached out
and held her; she was 6 years old.”
Viewers could see that Johnson was
deeply moved when he learned she had AIDS. Today, 19 years later,
both are living with a disease that had been considered quickly
Ellerbee had her own health crisis that
year; now she's a 19-year breast cancer survivor.
Her life has been complicated; prior to
her relationship with Tessem, four marriages ended in divorce or
separation. Her career, however, has thrived and “Nick News” has
prospered. “I had forgotten how smart kids are,” Ellerbee said,
“and how spontaneous they are.”
In an Internet age, they are filled
with information, some of it wrong. “You hear a kid say, 'I heard …
the planes were Japanese.' 'I heard Saddam Hussein attacked us' ….
'I heard 9/11 never happened.'”
For Ellerbee, that day was vivid. She
was returning to town when traffic to Manhattan was stopped.
Some people were already at the Lucky
Duck office, a dozen blocks from the World Trade Center. Ellerbee,
could only watch from a distance; a decade later, her special –
including kids who were much closer to the event – offers fresh
– “Nick News” special on the 10th
anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks
– 9 p.m. Thursday (Sept. 1),
– Also Thursday: Discovery has the
second half of “Rising: Rebuilding Ground Zero” (8-11 p.m.);
National Geographic reruns the second half of “Inside 9/11” (8-10