LINDA ELLERBEE: How to Be Media Literate

Adults may remember Linda Ellerbee as the NBC anchorwoman at the helm of several critically praised (yet, alas, low-rated) news shows during the 1980s. Or they may know her as a syndicated columnist and the author of two books, one of which, "And So it Goes," is an inside look at TV news.

In "Nickelodeon Special Edition: It's Only Television," the second of three news shows that she is producing for kids, Ellerbee shares some of that insight with a younger audience and shows them how to watch TV intelligently. "It's no longer enough for kids to be able to read and write. They have to be able to read television," she says. Ellerbee discussed what kids need to know about TV with Lauren Lipton.

Is media literacy among children a topic that's close to your heart?

It has always bothered me that the answer to the issue of childern and television for most parents is simply censorship. The parents say, "I don't allow my child to watch TV." Very often, these are the same parents who say, "I don't watch television; I'm far too good for that," and then can tell you everything that happened on the final episode of 'thirtysomething.' The truth is that most children come to kindergarten these days with 1,500 hours of television under their belt. They will spend far more time in front of a television than they will in a classroom for the next 12 years.

Isn't that depressing?

Well, wait a minute. It's just what is. So if you start with that, what is your answer? If your answer is censorship, or telling them not to watch it, or trying to pretend it's not there, you're going to lose the battle.

Kids have to know how television is made, what techniques are used, and the effects of those techniques, so television can stop being some force of mystery in their lives and be a tool they can use. They need to know that TV is not reality, that things are not solved in 30 minutes, that houses do not automatically clean themselves, that in the workplace actual work takes place.

You watch a TV sitcom--look at the Cosbys. He's a doctor, she's a lawyer, yet they always have all the time in the world for their kids. The house is always clean, but you never see a housekeeper and you never see them cleaning.

It's not that this is bad. It's simply that kids need the skills to deal with these things. We need to stop telling kids the camera does not lie. Nothing lies easier than a camera--it just depends on which way you point it.

Adults need to know all that, too, right?

We don't outlaw adults from watching these (Nickelodeon) programs!

Your own children are in their 20s. What got you interested all of a sudden in little kids?

Because I worked in television, my kids knew at an early age what an edit was--that when you saw a break in the film, something had been left out of whatever the fellow was saying. They knew what a cutaway was. They saw how it was done because they were my kids. But what became clear to me at a certain point, and it was a surprise both to me and to them, was that other kids didn't know these things. That was when I began to think about (media literacy).

In speeches, I used to say to parents, 'Sit down and watch TV with your kids and talk about it. Help your kids to be intelligent consumers of this product.' I used to say, 'Gee, (they) ought to be teaching this in schools.' Now it is being taught in some schools.

In elementary schools?

In some elementary and some high schools. Media literacy is not going to be a luxury in the 21st Century. It is going to be a necessity for any kind of thinking, discerning human being. And media literacy begins the day you stop thinking that if you ignore it, television will go away.

How would you define a media-literate person? Are you media literate?

Yes. Being media literate doesn't mean you sit in front of your television and hate it all and know what you're hating, or make fun of everything. Even when I'm being sucked into TV now, I can generally identify what is sucking me in.

In your book "And So It Goes," it comes across that you love television, even if you're cynical about it.

Skeptical. I don't think I'm cynical about it. Cynical is George Bush nominating Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court. I'm skeptical.

In the last piece in the show, in fact, which I insisted on, I wanted to do a little personal piece on what I liked about television, on what it's meant to my life, what is good about it. It's given me plenty. It's taken me places I couldn't go; it's taken me places no one has ever been before. I put together a video essay on that.

It's obvious that you've loved your jobs in television.

This is everything I left the network to do. It's chancy, it may not work, and it's worth trying. News and documentaries for kids, that isn't news about kids--that covers the behavior of nations, not how crayons are made--is an idea worth trying. On the other hand, if it gets canceled, they'll be saying,"Well, there goes Ellerbee again!"

"Nickelodeon Special Edition: It's Only Television" airs Wednesday 5-5:30 p.m., Friday 7-7:30 p.m. and Monday-Thursday 6:30-7 a.m. Nov. 11-21. The third "Special Edition" installment, on stereotyping, airs Dec. 15. Ellerbee's regular news series for kids is scheduled to begin next spring.

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