Ten Minutes With Linda Ellerbee
An American TV journalist
Photo by Scott Barrow
Linda Ellerbee is the whip-smart Texan who became a pioneer in TV journalism. The basis for the fictional Murphy Brown, the real Ellerbee won the duPont Columbia Award and 12 Emmys. The single mom teamed with Rolfe Tessem (who became her life partner) to create the longest-running kids’ news show, “Nick News With Linda Ellerbee.” After 43 years on TV, Ellerbee just announced her retirement. She plans to hike, cook, and host guests in her Egremont home—without any deadline. To quote her sign-off, “And so it goes.”
Did you always want to write? I grew up wanting to be an artist. But somewhere along the way, I realized that I didn’t have the talent. Writing was easier.
What makes you a strong writer? I’m an only child and a voracious reader. Books opened the world to me. And the world opened the rest of itself to me. Also, I’m a Texan and we have a strong heritage of storytelling. If you were going to tell a story around the table, you had to know that it had a beginning, middle, and end. If you couldn’t make it interesting, you weren’t going to be heard.
Fair to say, you say what you think? What bothers me is people say, “I like Donald Trump, he says what he thinks.” You don’t get points for saying what you think, unless you actually think.
How would you describe yourself? I speak directly, but I think thought goes in it first.
Was winning the duPont for “NBC News Overnight” a pinnacle? Winning the duPont and the 12 Emmys was nice, but the only award that ever meant much to me was when my daughter won the PEN Award for Best First Novel in 2012.
“Overnight” was described by the duPont committee as “possibly the best written and most intelligent news program ever.” How were you different? I never thought of myself as different. On the other hand, only dead fish swim with the stream all the time. I never saw any reason to go with the flow if I didn’t think the flow was right.
What distinguished your brand of journalism? Being something of a bull-shitter myself, I have the ability to step back and say, “The Emperor is wearing no clothes.” For the eight years that Reagan was President, I watched the national press corps self-censor because he was so popular. Our job is to question power.
Is reporting for kids different? For adults, you report the news. Kids need the extra step of us telling them it’s possible to make some changes. It’s important to say wherever in this world you find bad things happening, you always find good people trying to make things better.
You’ve said you do “Nick News” not just to change their world, but to change our world. The Catholic church figured out a long time ago, get them when they’re seven and you have them for life. If we can get them interested in the larger world at age nine—in voting, in citizenship, in democracy—maybe they’ll become people who feel that they can change the world around them.
Why Converse? When I was covering Congress for NBC, all the men had to wear suits and ties. I’d wear a shirt and blazer for the camera with jeans and Converse. There was a dress code for the men, but it had never been envisioned that a woman would ever cover the Congress. The men were jealous; sexism worked in my favor!
You’ve had four marriages. Why not marry your partner of 30 years? I was never good at marriage.
How was being a journalist and a single mother of two? The women of my generation paid a price. We were told if you take time off from work for family-related obligations—the school play, your child is sick, name the obligation—we’ll know women aren’t serious about work. We carried this burden that we were representing all women.
Any regrets? I wish I had said, “To hell with you.”
Where do you get your news? Christiane Amanpour is my favorite reporter. I watch Rachel Maddow. I read Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone. When I want a real, clear picture of the news, I turn to NPR. Fox and MSNBC are opinion and that’s fine so long as you call it opinion. CNN is supposed to be about news, but it’s so lame.
Why the Berkshires? I’m from Texas; I thought the four seasons were a myth. I thought they tinted all those orange leaves for postcards.
What do you love here? The Appalachian Trail. I’ve done most of Massachusetts, all of Connecticut, parts of New York and Vermont. I love going out in the wilderness alone with just what I can carry on my back.
Childhood heroes? Roy Rogers. I never wanted to be Dale Evans. She just stood around and said, “Go, Roy!”
Adult heroes? My friend, Gloria Steinem, taught me how to age. Basically she’d sum it up as: “Don’t stop.”