If you are in your 20s, you might react to Linda Ellerbee’s name the same way I do: an annoyed groan, followed by an instinctual reach of the hand for a nearby remote control.
I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by noting that, generally, children don’t care about the news. Most small children are blissfully unaware of major current events, including the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the rise of China as an international superpower, and the revolutionary concept of not pooping in your own pants.
In most cases, kids only really care about the things that directly involve them. This is normal; at least, I like to think that it’s normal, since my main concern as a child was whether or not I could have Dunk-a-Roos for lunch. The self-centered child notion is pretty accurately exemplified by the time my childhood best friend explained his thoughts on the well-being of Japan as a nation: we were about eight years old and he said, with a rather concerned look on his face, “I really hope that Japan never gets destroyed by a natural disaster or anything. That’s where all my toys are made.”
An eight-year-old’s idea of a global tragedy is a fire at the Hasbro factory.
That’s the biggest influence of my opinion on Linda Ellerbee, who, by all accounts, is a very successful and respected journalist. You may remember her from Nick News, Nickelodeon’s kid-oriented news program, which she’s hosted from 1992 till, shockingly, the present. The show’s full title is technically Nick News with Linda Ellerbee, but I won’t be calling it that, because, you know, give me a break already.
I can’t argue with the good intentions that inspired Ellerbee and her cohorts to create Nick News, or the social conscious and idealism that characterized the program. All I can say is this: eight-year-old me f-cking hated Linda Ellerbee.
While Ellerbee’s desire to teach young kids about pressing issues and important events was admirable, it also kind of sucked. Kids do not like the news, especially when it’s on one of the only channels designed specifically for them, and it’s pre-empting an episode of Legends of the Hidden Temple, an episode that could finally be the one where a shrouded Kirk Fogg feeds the losing team’s members into Olmec’s drooling mouth. Sure, it’s most likely just one of the other hundreds of episodes where the losers get Blow Pops or a Casio wristwatch, but you never know. And either way, it’s better than Nick News.
It’s not that kids can’t take any proactive or conscientious messages with their entertainment. The key is to treat it like medicine, and hide it in something that will mask the bitter taste (of caring about other people). You don’t give kids medicine directly — my mom tried that with Dimetapp. It didn’t even matter if she held my mouth closed, I spit it out of my eyes like a freaking lizard. She eventually realized that she needed to disguise the medicine in candy if she wanted me to take it (nowadays, I usually take my medicine with grain alcohol). Unfortunately, Nick News eschewed this model, proudly flouting itself as educational and parent-approved, instead of hiding its values under the guise of something cool, like puppets or talking cars.
A perfect example of the Hidden Value approach was Captain Planet. Every kid watched Captain Planet religiously because he had teal skin and green hair and looked kind of like a radioactive David Hasselhoff. Captain Planet was also inherently educational, because our titular star was always fighting polluters, and he drove a Prius, or something along those lines. Either way, it attracted a lot of celebrities, because it featured the voices of Whoopi Goldberg, LeVar Burton, Meg Ryan, Martin Sheen, Sting, and, most notably, Jeff Goldblum as the evil “Verminous Skumm.” To be honest, I loved that show and I don’t even really understand how recycling works, or what it is.
So I guess the moral is that you absolutely can educate children about important issues through entertaining television shows; the key is simply to water down the content until it’s a sad, pathetic shell of itself.